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Political campaigners have always relied on sources of information for targeting their resources, these may be from mailing lists and canvassing returns. In a modern era of digital campaigning this also includes targeting of social media campaigns based on user information.

This is a legitimate tool for a political party campaigning in elections or a referendum participant. The concern is that this is becoming less transparent.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) leads on data protection enforcement. Its current enforcement powers are set out in the Data Protection Act 1998.

The Information Commission’s Office has produced guidance for political parties and MPs (who are data controllers in their own right) on political campaigning. It states that:

  1. The Data Protection Act requires that processing of personal information must be fair. Fairness generally requires an organisation to be transparent and tell individuals how it intends to use their personal data including who the information will be shared with. This is commonly provided by a privacy notice given to individuals at the time their data is collected.
  2. Privacy notices should be written in clear straightforward language that individuals will understand.

Even before the current controversy relating to Cambridge Analytica, the Information Commissioner was investigating the use of data analytics for political purposes. Details of the investigation are available from its website.

The Electoral Commission is currently also investigating digital campaigning – the use of data held by parties, campaigners and social media companies for targeting, how political ads are used on social media, and the use of bots – in the light of the Commission’s experience in general elections and the EU referendum. The Electoral Commission’s investigation has a particular focus on campaign finance.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) is critical. It points out, “the main legislation regulating political parties’ campaigning activity and finance dates back to 2000 – before Facebook (2004) or Twitter (2006) existed, let alone had any role in political campaigns.”

The ERS also points out that the Electoral Commission has just announced investigations into the main political parties in relation to financial reporting during the 2017 General Election. It says that “if the main political parties can’t even get the basic accounting bit right, how on earth can the Electoral Commission keep track of all this additional more opaque activity?”

This briefing gives a brief overview of campaign regulation and some of the issues relating to campaiging in the digital era.  

Documents to download

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