Government TDs concerned new law is not enough to regulate online political ads

Law aims to modernise electoral registration and provide greater transparency in political advertising

Malcolm Noonan, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, appeared at the Oireachtas Committee on Housing for pre-legislative scrutiny of the outline of the planned Bill. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Malcolm Noonan, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, appeared at the Oireachtas Committee on Housing for pre-legislative scrutiny of the outline of the planned Bill. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Government TDs have raised concern that a new law aimed at overhauling Ireland’s electoral system does not go far enough to regulate online political advertising.

Fianna Fáil TD Paul McAuliffe suggested that such advertising be suspended until robust legislation is in place.

Fine Gael’s Emer Higgins suggested there should be year-round regulation of online political advertising, not just in the build-up to elections as planned under the proposed Electoral Reform Bill.

Their remarks came as Malcolm Noonan, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, appeared at the Oireachtas Committee on Housing for pre-legislative scrutiny of the outline of the planned Bill.

The proposed law would establish an Electoral Commission by the end of the year and aims to modernise the electoral registration process, and regulate online political advertising to provide greater transparency including labelling to show who is behind the ad, who is being targeted by it, and how much it cost.

Mr McAuliffe questioned whether proceeding with the section of the Bill on online advertising is “wise”.

He said it would put online political advertising on a legislative basis for the first time and compared this to the situation with local radio stations which are precluded from carrying such ads.

Mr McAuliffe claimed that online media companies that appeared before the committee “ran a million miles away from even being called a publisher or having any responsibility to provide balance”

He suggested “we need to suspend online political advertising until we have the robust legislation in this area.

“I’m saying that in a personal capacity – this section of the bill doesn’t do enough for me.”

Ms Higgins said she doesn’t believe the Bill goes far enough as it only regulates online political advertising in the run up to elections.

“I believe we need to regulate online political advertising year-round. I think we need to do that because it represents too big of a threat to our democracy not to.”

Mr Noonan responded to Mr McAuliffe saying the Department does think it’s wise to proceed with the online political advertising section of the Bill.

‘Complimentary’

He told both Mr McAuliffe and Ms Higgins that the Bill is “complimentary” to a wider suite of measures.

He listed European Union legislation as well as planned laws on online safety and hate speech here.

Mr Noonan highlighted how the Electoral Reform Bill is focused on transparency in online political advertising rather than content.

Sinn Féin committee member Eoin Ó Broin said there is broad support for the Bill but also “strong cross-party unanimity” that it should be “significantly strengthened”.

Referring to previous committee meetings on the Bill which heard from various groups and academics she said one point raised was the need to ensure the new commission can keep pace with changes in election campaigns particularly in the area of online advertising.

The Committee on Housing – which had its last pre-legislative scrutiny meeting on the Electoral Reform Bill on Tuesday – is working on a report that will be considered by the Department as the final legislation is being crafted.