Facebook ‘concerned’ over plans to regulate online political advertising in Ireland

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An Oireachtas committee will hear submissions from Facebook and Twitter today on the proposed Electoral Reform Bill.

FACEBOOK WILL TODAY tell an Oireachtas committee that it has “concerns” over proposed electoral reform laws in Ireland that would regulate political advertisements online.

The social media giant will also tell TDs and senators that if the government presses ahead with these reforms it could place platforms such as Facebook in the “undesirable and avoidable situation where they could have to choose between violating Irish law or violating EU law”. 

Twitter, meanwhile, will tell the committee that there is a “remote chance” that the proposed reforms around advertising on social media could negatively impact the day-to-day campaigning of non-profit organisations and NGOs. 

In January, the government published the general scheme of the Electoral Reform Bill. 

The bill proposes to set up a statutory, independent Electoral Commission for Ireland.

It would also see the regulation of online political advertising in the run-up to electoral events, along with the modernisation of the electoral registration process. 

Under the general scheme of the bill, it defines an online political advertisement as “any form of communication in a digital format commissioner for political purposes” to be displayed or promoted on an online platform for which the platform charges money. 

It would be a requirement to have a “transparency notice” displayed with the advert denoting who has paid for the ad, how a person came to be targeted with the ad and the amount paid. The onus will be on the online platforms to ensure such information is made available for the adverts they allow to be run on their sites. 

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage is conducting pre-legislative scrutiny on the bill, and will today hear from representatives from Facebook and Twitter on the matter. 

In his opening statement to the committee, Facebook Ireland’s head of public policy Dualta Ó Broin will say that the social media firm has analysed the general scheme of the Electoral Reform Bill “with great interest but, at times, also with some concerns”. 

“Regarding the specific wording of the proposed legislation, it seems appropriate to start with the definition of a political advertisement,” Ó Broin will say. “Facebook recommends a more objective definition of Online Political Advertising.

“At a minimum, the legislation should take account of what online intermediaries, such as Facebook, can and cannot do. In short, we can identify whether an ad contains certain content, but we cannot divine the intention that an individual has in placing an ad. The reference to ‘political purpose’ should be replaced with a far more objective test.”

Ó Broin will also say Facebook has a “broad range of concerns” about the transparency requirements. 

These include “privacy concerns” about the information regarding an individual which is intended to be shared and the impact of “disclosing specific micro-targeting criteria”. 

We also have practical concerns about the appropriateness of online platforms collecting information about the amount spent on “content creation,” and the requirements for advertisers to provide an end-date for a campaign. Finally, we have concerns about the reporting obligations set out in this head and question whether they are proportionate or indeed necessary in all circumstances.

Elections

Both Twitter and Facebook will say they welcome the government’s move at reform to ensure the integrity and transparency of elections. 

In the case of Twitter, it will say its interactions with the UK electoral commission had been “positive” and it would work with its Irish equivalent once established. 

It will say it already prohibits political advertising, and does so on the belief that “political message reach should be earned, not bought”. 

Twitter will also say it takes action against disinformation on its platform when it comes to elections, such as efforts to mislead about an election outcome or encourage voter suppression or intimidation. 

It will also say its platform has a positive effect in the run up to elections. 

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“For example, during the Irish General Election in 2020, we saw a consistently high level of positive and healthy political debate on Twitter between candidates, parties, voters, journalists, civil society groups and interested election-watchers,” Twitter will say. 

On the issue of the Electoral Reform Bill, Twitter will say that there’s a chance that the definition of “political purpose” as set out in the legislation may have a remote chance of negatively affecting non-profits or NGOs seeking to advertise on online platforms. 

It will say: “It would be helpful if this was further clarified. We respectfully submit that such categories of promotion should not be subject to the requirements set out in the draft legislation.”

Both Twitter and Facebook will express concerns about efforts to regulate online platforms at both a national and European level. 

Twitter will call for a “coherent set of standards at a European level” as failure to do so would “risk building virtual walls between our digital communities”. 

Facebook will say that enacting the Electoral Reform Bill now will “lead to a lack of alignment” between Irish rules and EU rules. 

“We understand that the Commission intends to publish a legislative proposal for political advertising in the next six months,” its head of policy Ó Broin will say.

“There is a very real possibility that online platforms could find themselves under two inconsistent regulatory regimes and placed in the undesirable (and avoidable) situation where they would have to choose between violating Irish law, or violating EU law.”

The Oireachtas Committee will begin its hearing in the Dáil chamber at 9.30am this morning. 

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