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Our laws are completely inadequate for dealing with interference in our democracy

5 min read

World wide disquiet about Russian interference in Western democracies has cracked the debate wide open, exposing once and for all the total inadequacy of today’s legislation, says Shadow DCMS Minister Liam Byrne MP.

The year ahead will be a big test for the Government - and a big test for how the world’s social media firms will respond to new calls to bring their regulation into the 21st century.

The world wide disquiet about Russian interference in Western democracies has cracked the debate wide open, exposing once and for all the total inadequacy of today’s legislation.

The new Russian world view slowly developing since 2007, is now tipped with spiky new ‘active measures’ that aim to divide, confuse, confound the West, by taking aim at the messiness of our digital democracy.

We now know there’s a tried and tested ‘dark social’ playbook that is deployed with extraordinary effect. 

First, we have the hackers, groups like Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, that were possibly amongst the teams leading the attacks on the DNC during the American elections. They work in partnership with ‘useful idiots’ like the leaders of WikiLeaks, who were quite prepared to publish hacked material wholesale.

Second, we have what’s most politely labelled the 'alternative news' platforms’, who publish to provoke a row. Once a row is up and running, the propagandists go to work on Twitter. Think of the misrepresented picture of a hijab-wearing lady on London Bridge during the terror attacks. Or think of Cardiff University’s report of 47 accounts previously tied to Russia, posting divisive comments ‘to extend the impact and harm’ of four terrorist attacks this year. 

Once the ball is rolling, the troll farms go to work. We now know the importance of organisations like the Twitter trolls run by the Kremlin’s Internet Research Agency. This is now standard practice. Russian “Twitter bots,” or “active amplifiers,” went into overdrive to spread anti-Macron and pro-Le Pen messages during the French election and these bots then shifted focus during September 2017 to attack Chancellor Angela Merkel and support far-right German candidates.

Fourth, inflammatory material is imported into private groups on Facebook where it spreads with dizzying speed - and force. Of course we simply do not know, quite the size of this impact.Why not? Because Facebook will not tell us. Despite nearly $4 billion a quarter in profits, they claim they can’t track down problematic accounts.

Fifth, we now know there is a risk of foreign money being used to fund ‘dark social’ ads with incredible reach on the internet, all the more effective for the new generation of targeting strategies divided by firms like Cambridge Analytica, or Aggregate IQ.

Today our legislation, agencies and national strategy are not fit for purpose. That is why the Chairman of the Electoral Commission, Sir John Holmes, is openly warning that a perfect storm is putting 'our democratic processes in peril.’  We simply do not have the laws or policies in place to deal with this threat.

Social media giants that enjoy a legal privilege invented before they were born, which lets them operate as platforms, not publishers. The 2000 EU eCommerce Directive exempts Facebook, YouTube or Twitter from liabilities like not becoming message carriers for hate speech, or death threats. This means is both unable and unwilling to regulate social media platforms as a broadcaster, despite the fact that in any Facebook marketing event you might care to attend, they emphasise the importance of video.

The Electoral Commission is powerless to police foreign interference. The Advertising Standards Authority is reluctant to regulate political advertising - but has the power to ban political adverts from broadcast - but not targeted social media campaigns.

It’s Chief Executive recently wrote to me say: "The relative absence of regulation in non-broadcast political advertising is a matter that causes concern within the ASA and, clearly, wider society”.

Finally, we have the idiocy of a national security strategy which does not even articulate the defence of the integrity of our democracy as a core, specific, defined objective.

The lunacy of our current position is summarised by a simple fact. The Congress of the United States currently has more power to investigate and act on this threat than we have here in this country. Section 256 of the Sanctions Act 2017, requires Congress to seek from the president an annual report into Russian interference into the elections and referenda of America's allies, principal amongst which are our good selves.

There is now no such power in the hands of this parliament.

So, over the year to come, I hope we can make real progress developing a new consensus for reform.

The point I often make to the digital industry is that every new economic revolution brings with it, a slow, messy progress to bring new laws up to date to help govern for new times; to help check unforeseen problems, and to help spread new potential. Over the long 19th century, there were some 18 different Factory Acts designed to civilise the new workplaces of the Industrial Revolution.  The digital era is no different. Change has to come. And Parliament, business and civil society must find a way to steer the course. But we need to get on with it.

Liam Byrne is the Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Hodge Hill and is the Shadow Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

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