There is a “lack of ambition” for a planned new election watchdog and concerns about gaps in proposals to regulate online political advertising TDs and Senators have been told.
The issues were raised by academics as the Oireachtas Committee on Local Government conducts pre-legislative scrutiny of the outline of the planned Electoral Reform Bill.
Under the Bill, the Government plans to set up a new independent electoral commission that will take on several responsibilities which are currently with other agencies and also regulate online political advertising during election periods.
Political advertisements online will have to be clearly labelled and include a transparency notice on who paid for it, the costs and whether any micro-targeting applied to direct it at certain web users.
TDs and Senators heard a presentation prepared by Dr Jane Suiter of Dublin City University, Dr Theresa Reidy of University College Cork and Prof David Farrell of University College Dublin.
The academics welcomed the Bill and the plans to set up an electoral commission saying Ireland’s democratic processes are “long due for updating for the digital age”.
But they said: “Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the general scheme is the overall lack of ambition envisaged for the commission.”
They argued that the draft legislation “heavily prescribes the structures and functions of the commission, leaving little room for expansion of current election-management activities or to allow for its evolution in the decades to come, or its capacity to adapt to electoral-integrity challenges of the future.”
They warned that it was a “static design for a dynamic environment”, there must be “more ambition to allow for the commission to grow” and “this is the big missing piece in this document.”
Dr Suiter read the statement and said the academics’ comments are designed to enhance the final design and operation of the institution and they hope the committee can contribute to this during pre-legislative scrutiny.
Fianna Fáil TD Paul McAuliffe said he was concerned that political advertising will still be allowed online while radio and television stations are prevented from gaining that advertising revenue. He asked if there was a case for online political advertising to be outlawed during elections.
Dr Suiter said the difference between what Ireland’s political advertising regulations allow on international platforms and on national media was “very marked”. She said the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland had made a submission to say it was not best practice and the controls should be “media neutral” – essentially allowing political advertising on broadcasters if it was permitted online.
Dr Suiter cited Facebook, Twitter and Google in saying that the big platforms “all operate according to their own rules” and what may be banned on one, may not be on another.
She said: “There’s a big question that we kind of allow the regulation of that to be decided by big US platforms rather than by ourselves.” She said there were other questions around the limiting of the new commission’s regulatory powers to election periods “when we all know that there’s a lot of political activity between elections” adding that this “would seem really problematic.”
She said the transparency measures were good but were only to be an archive under the plans rather than being published in real time. Dr Suiter said: “While the moves on political advertising are welcome, there’s quite a few holes or lacunas or ways that it could be really substantially improved.”
Fine Gael TD Emer Higgins said she agreed with the need to “future-proof” the Bill and she understands the concerns about political advertising. She said social media companies were expected to appear before the committee as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process. Ms Higgins added: “I don’t want this to be a case of self-regulation. That’s not the right way to deal with it.”