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The AI election is here – but new laws are not needed

3 min read

It is the world’s biggest election year. Billions of citizens are going to the ballot box, and Britain is up next.

These elections are the first to happen since significant advances in AI, and the technology will almost certainly be used for fabrication and manipulation. Despite these risks, now is not the time for lawmakers to panic. We should keep a cool head and trust voters. 

Society, the economy and public services ​must ​rest on secure constitutional foundations. And the integrity of elections matters so that people’s free choices achieve what they intend. So just how concerned should we be about the influence of AI at election time?  

First, people can take confidence that, in the UK, our national approach to this technology is wise, balancing safety with innovation. I am proud to have helped make progress on global safety, initiating Britain’s significant Bletchley Summit and Declaration in 2023, and starting the first AI Safety Institute.   

Second, domestically, UK regulators have also been tasked with setting guidance, including the Electoral Commission. It may be challenging for such enforcement agencies to move fast enough if there are large numbers of allegations within an election campaign. They must reassure the public that they are ready during this election campaign. 

The UK’s legislative framework is already well equipped. Indeed, AI-powered communications could fall into the longstanding electoral offence of making a false statement about a candidate's personal character or conduct, or come under the new Online Safety Act or count as defamation.  

Despite this, some argue more new laws are needed for election campaigns. I urge caution and clear thinking before rushing to that idea.

First, it would be unworkable, because there cannot be a central watchdog for all policies and facts – and electoral law has to be workable. Second, and worse, it would be unjust because it would strip responsibility from people making their own minds up, putting a state bureaucrat in charge instead. Freedom of speech in means debate; campaigners must rebut points they disagree with. To do otherwise opens up a far-reaching and dangerous legal concept. The law during an election is a vital and levelling framework, but that is all it is. Civic debate and choice are the real thing. 

The elections of 2024 have shown themselves to be noisy, but the underlying questions of power, influence and communication are hardly new. That is not to say, we should be complacent. There could yet be attacks on our democracy before polling day, and we should be prepared. 

There are some necessary actions. Social media transparency tools are welcome. These help users to judge what they see. Tech firms should also continue to develop tools against illegal content. There will be much to do to overcome complexity and controversy. 

Government ​has a significant role too. ​I strongly endorse the assurance that the UK Government provides through the Defending Democracy Taskforce. When I led elections policy, I was determined that our elections must be secure, fair and transparent, and I knew the overall operation of our system must be protected. So, the National Cyber Security Centre identifies and responds to threats and offers expertise to all parts of our elections. It is a daunting world in 2024, but we should keep a cool head. New electoral laws are not the answer to concerns about new technology. Only citizens can judge the credibility of the information they see. People make their choices, and we should hold firm in our faith in that. We should be optimistic about human potential, and positive about politics.

 

Chloe Smith, former Conservative Member of Parliament for Norwich North and a former Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, as well as a former Elections Minister.

A longer version of this article can be read in Bright Blue’s Centre Write Magazine.

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