Anthony Browne: How to ensure that social media companies compensate the victims of fraud

25 Apr

Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire and a member of the Treasury Select Committee 

During the last few years, fraud has become the most common cause of crime, causing misery to millions of people  and destroying thousands of livelihoods. It has taken off so rapidly because the internet and mobile telephony have made it far easier for criminals to contact victims, and legislation and industry practice have not kept pace. Almost all fraud is now enabled by online firms.

In a recent Treasury Select Committee report, we suggested a whole range of reforms to tackle fraud, many of which the Government is taking forwards, and hopefully it will do more in an upcoming Economic Crime Bill in the new parliamentary session starting next month.

But online companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Instagram and WhatsApp also need to live up to their responsibilities. That means doing what they can to stop fraud happening in the first place, but also compensating victims when they have fallen for fraud promoted by the online companies. Unlike banks, they are refusing to do this.

At a Treasury Select Committee session, representatives of Facebook and Google squirmed when I grilled them about why they do not compensate victims, insisting that they wanted to stop fraud happening in the first place. It is a good ambition to eliminate all online-enabled fraud, but fraudsters are incredibly entrepreneurial, and will work out ways of evading whatever barriers Google and Facebook put in the way.

I have been speaking to ministers in all relevant Government departments; to consumer groups, fraud campaigns, and regulators, including the FCA, Ofcom and Payment Systems Regulator, and to online firms themselves, making the case that online companies that promote fraud should be made to compensate victims.

There is a simple moral argument: those who profit from fraud should pay the costs. This would provide relief to those customers who are not entitled to compensation from banks if they can instead get compensation from the online firm that advertised the fraud to them.

But there is a simple practical argument, too: as long as online companies profit from promoting fraud but don’t pay the costs, they will not have an internal financial incentive to invest in deterring it. The banks pay some of the cost of fraud, and I have seen first hand how that mobilises them to do whatever they can to reduce their fraud bills. If fraud compensation costs a company £100 million a year, it is worth its while investing in teams to stop it. Without that incentive, the task would become a regulatory box-ticking and communications exercise.

The principle of getting online firms to compensate victims is widely supported, and not just by consumer groups and fraud campaigners. In evidence to the Select Committee, ministers made it clear that they accept the principle of the argument: incentives need to be aligned.

It is clearly problematic to have one industry profiting from promoting fraud while others are trying to stop it. There are other ways to impose costs on fraud-promoting online companies, such as by fining them – but that does nothing directly to help victims, and requires strong enforcement of a well-targeted penalties regime. Experience tells us that there will be few fines, and online firms will simply focus on legal ways to avoid getting fined, rather than actually stopping fraud.

When the Select Committee said that online firms compensate victims of fraud, the recommendation was welcomed and made headline news, but it was also greeted with some scepticism from some commentators and officials: it’s a great idea in principle, they said, but how could it be made to happen? Well, here is how.

The scheme (called the Contingent Reimbursement Model) by which banks compensate fraud victims is voluntary – and flawed. All main banks are part of it, but some like TSB are not. The banks decide which victims get compensation and which don’t, with the result that levels of compensation vary massively from bank to bank.

The Government is legislating to make it mandatory for banks to be a member of the scheme, and also to have a standard set of rules to decide when victims should be compensated and when not (there is wide agreement that if a customer has been grossly negligent – for example, insisting that a bank transfers money to a fraudster they have been warned about – then the customer is not entitled  to compensation).

This new regime will be overseen by the Payment Systems Regulator, which is part of the Financial Conduct Authority. This legislation could be extended to cover online firms. The online firms do not have financial relationships with consumers, so the compensation should still be paid by the banks.

But the banks should then be able to reclaim the compensation from the online companies, either directly or through an industry fund, in the same way that insurance companies settle between themselves. Generally, it seems fair that banks and online firms pay half the compensation each, but in incidences where the bank is not liable to compensation, the online firm should pay all of it.

Obviously, online firms should only pay compensation when they promoted the fraud in the first place; but, equally, if they promoted a fraud, then the victim should always be entitled to compensation. It is not reasonable to expect individual consumers to be able to carry out greater due diligence than the world’s most technologically advanced companies.

The only resistance to this approach is from the online firms. They are worried about how such change would affect their profits, but the fraud bill will be small change for the richest companies on the planet. When they tell me their focus is eliminating all fraud in the first place, my response is: excellent – then you won’t have any compensation to pay.

The online firms are making a major strategic error. Like all firms, they have a licence from society to operate. They will lose this if they consistently defend the indefensible – and demanding the right to profit from promoting fraud while refusing to pay the costs is clearly indefensible.

It is inevitable they will have to do so, and it would be best for them to embrace the inevitable. Accepting that they should pay the cost of fraud would be a huge PR win for a scandal-hit industry, compared to being forced to do it kicking and screaming. After countless outrages, it would show that online firms have learnt their lesson: doing no evil needs to be more than just a motto.

Profile: Chris Philp, charged with the nightmarish task of seeing the Online Safety Bill through the Commons

15 Apr

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This, however, is the task to which Chris Philp will from next Tuesday have to apply himself as he strives to see the Online Safety Bill through the Commons.

It is expected to be the most amended Bill in history, for everyone who has had anything to do with the legislation admits that it is in an unsatisfactory state, with terms like “a bloody nightmare” often used.

The Online Safety Bill sets out to regulate the internet. This means anyone who has ever been annoyed by something which happened to them online has views about what it should ban or at least ameliorate, which in turn means virtually every MP and peer.

John Whittingdale, a former Culture Secretary, told ConHome it is quite wrong that only one day, Tuesday, has been allowed for the Second Reading, and observed that it really needs two.

Whittingdale pointed out that on Tuesday there are likely to be statements on Ukraine, Downing Street parties and energy, which means those who want to speak on “this hugely important and hideously complicated Bill will get about 30 seconds each”.

At the heart of the legislation is an unresolved struggle between free speech – the right, under the law, to publish whatever one wishes on the internet – and the proposal to remove “legal but harmful” content.

As the Bill goes through its Committee stage, Philp will be charged with the task of deciding which amendments the Government intends to accept, and which it opposes.

This will require a grasp of the detail, which he is universally agreed to possess, just as he did in his previous ministerial post at the Home Office, which included the vexed question of cross-Channel migration.

It will also, however, require the ability under pressure to shape incompatible elements into a coherent whole which can command parliamentary and public confidence, and here one simply does not know how he will get on.

His officials find he masters his brief with almost miraculous speed, but is deficient in social skills, and is not the kind of person who says at the end of an arduous day,  or to whom one might oneself feel able to say, “Shall we go for a drink?”

If Philp succeeds, he be marked out as a rising star. If he fails, and antagonises parliamentarians as he fails, the role of scapegoat awaits him, even though the whole venture was set in motion four years ago by Theresa May, along with various other pious aspirations which are easier said than done, such as the Net Zero target and the ban on conversion therapy.

When Nadine Dorries, since 15th September 2021 Culture Secretary, and her sidekick Philp, appointed the next day Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Tech and the Digital Economy, appeared in November before the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, the following exchange took place:

The Chair, Damian Collins: “Thank you very much. You say that you have been looking at progressing the Bill since you were appointed as Secretary of State. By that, would it be fair to assume that, as far as you and the department are concerned, the Bill as published in draft form earlier this year is not the Government’s final word on the legislation?”

Nadine Dorries: “No, it is not the Government’s final word. It is not my final word. I have been pushing on a number of areas, which I hope to be able to highlight this morning. It is not the final word because of the work that you have been undertaking. I want to reassure you that we are awaiting your recommendations as soon as possible, and we will be looking at them very seriously indeed. At the risk of saying too much, I want to reassure you that they will be very carefully and very seriously looked at. I see this as very much a joint effort on behalf of all of us.”

So the Government is open, or claims it is open, to being pushed around: an additional incentive for both the Commons and the Lords to try to push Philp around.

Insiders say the legislation is already festooned like a Christmas tree: “Nadine keeps hanging more and more things on it.”

Dorries says this is “the most important piece of legislation to pass through Parliament” in her 17 years in the House, and “has to be watertight”:

“In my previous role as Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention for two years, I made a point of meeting with the parents of children who had lost their lives, had taken their own lives. I cannot put into words how devastating it is to sit down with parents of children who have taken their own lives needlessly. It was not that they went online and looked for the means to do so, but because algorithms took them in that direction, whether it was to pro-anorexia sites, suicide chatrooms or self-harm sites.”

This is one of the harms which the giant tech companies will be required to take reasonable steps to prevent. So Philp has got to produce a Bill which will not only stand up to parliamentary scrutiny, but to the world’s top lawyers, employed by Facebook and Google.

One danger is that the big tech companies, which will be liable under the Act to fines of up to ten per cent of their global turnover, will err on the side of caution, and will censor anything which might conceivably cause harm. To some extent, this is already happening.

It is easy enough to agree that children should not be encouraged, by algorithms which guide them to the wrong sites, to commit suicide.

But what about adults who wish to discuss climate change, or the best way to treat a mysterious new virus which has just emerged in China? “Legal but harmful” could result in the censorship of various ideas which are regarded with horror in Silicon Valley, but which in Britain we wish to be free to discuss.

Are Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg to be the arbiters of thought in Sheffield and Swansea?

OFCOM will be given the task of implementing the Act. It will draw up a code of practice, which the tech companies will have a duty either to follow, or to show they have matched. “The point of bite is at the duty level,” Philp told the joint committee.

“We must also remember that we have given OFCOM teeth, some may say fangs,” Dorries added.

Dorries and Philp stand shoulder to shoulder. When John Nicolson (SNP, Ochil and South Perthshire) tried to rough up Dorries, Philp asked: “Are these questions designed to scrutinise the Bill or personally to attack the Secretary of State?”

And Dorries soon afterwards said of Philp: “I know he is very keen to give you the technical answer. I am so glad he is here.”

But to the condundrums posed by the Bill, there will not be technical answers.

Nor will Philp be able, as has been his inclination in his career so far, simply to follow with ostentatious fidelity the party line.

There is, as yet, no party line. On the one side are MPs like David Davis and Steve Baker who are vigilant defenders of free speech.

On the other are figures like Dorries who voice the desire of parents everywhere, and especially in seats captured from Labour in 2019, to have their children protected from perverts and pornographers, and their grandmothers from online fraudsters.

And there are other powerful interests which Philp will be under pressure to accommodate. Many Remainer MPs are obsessed with disinformation, to which they attribute their defeat in the 2016 referendum. The Home Office is keen, for reasons of national security, to end encrypted messaging.

British newspapers want to take revenge on the Californian tech giants which have stolen their advertising revenues.

In an attempt to conciliate the newspaper industry, the Bill includes special protections for journalism, a term which is hard to define in the age of the citizen journalist.

Nor is the Daily Mail easy to conciliate on a long-term basis. Last month Philp wrote a piece for it in which he said:

Social media sites currently operate under no one’s rules but their own.

This has led to an online world where teenagers’ lives can be ruined by cyberbullying, suicide is encouraged, vulnerable people are radicalised by terrorists, kids are exposed to pornography and racist bile is shared without consequence.

What’s worse – a lot of this vile stuff is actively promoted to huge audiences via algorithms simply because it makes social media firms more money.

The case for regulation couldn’t be clearer: We have a moral duty to make big tech take action and clean up the internet once and for all. As a father, nothing could be more important to me…

Trusted news sites such as MailOnline will be exempt from the Bill’s provisions, including its reader comment sections which inspire such lively debate.

Ofcom will hold tech giants to account with tough powers to issue multi-billion-pound fines and block them in the UK.

I cannot be alone (the style is infectious) in finding something repugnant in a Government minister, or even a regulator devised and perhaps leant upon by the minister, deciding which news sites are “trusted”.

Where do questions of good taste and manners end, and the “harms” which the Bill is supposed to avert begin? That is an impossible border to draw, especially as it is fluid.

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in part because of his genius for saying and writing things which were in poor taste, and for which the prigs wished to condemn him, but which most fair-minded people could see ought in a free society to be allowed.

How is Philp to make sense of that kind of provocation, and that kind of toleration? It is a matter more of instinct than of legal definition. The Bill is in danger of setting out to define the indefinable.

When the Daily Mail is angry with Philp, as assuredly it will be one day, it will turn him over. He will have arrived as a politician when that newspaper denounces him on its front page as an enemy of freedom.

Philp, born in 1976, was educated at St Olave’s Grammar School, in Orpington in Kent. He read physics at University College, Oxford, became a successful businessman, in 2006 took a council seat off the supposedly impregnable Camden Labour Party, but at the 2010 general election fell 42 votes short of defeating Glenda Jackson, the Labour incumbent, in Hampstead and Kilburn.

He had worked immensely hard to win the seat, but took defeat with good grace, and in 2015 was returned for Croydon South, after which he said in his maiden speech:

“People in Croydon South believe that hard work and enterprise are the best ways of combating poverty and promoting prosperity. Businesses such as the Wing Yip Chinese supermarket on Purley Way and BSW Heating in Kenley are the lifeblood not just of our economy but of our society. I share those values. Over the past 15 years, I have set up and run my own businesses in this country and overseas. I set up my first business when I was 24. I started by driving the delivery van myself, and eventually floated that company on the stock market. My grandfather also drove a delivery van and he grew up in Peckham. I think he would be very proud, if he were still with us, to see his grandson speaking on the Floor of the House today.”

All good stuff, but one detects a kind of compelled agreement which will not be available as he sets out to pilot the Online Safety Bill through the Commons.

Rocio Concha: If the Government wants to build back better, it must put the consumer at the centre

9 Aug

Rocio Concha is Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?

As we start to look ahead to beyond the pandemic, the Government will have to grapple with how to stimulate an economic recovery and form public policy agendas for a society that in many ways looks different compared to 18 months ago. While there will be a natural focus on investment, innovation and competition, it would be a fundamental mistake to overlook the vital role which consumers have to play.

Because it will be everyday people that drive our economic recovery. The more confident they feel, the more they are likely to spend and shop around, to stimulate competition and to support innovation by trying new products and services – all things which the UK, and businesses large and small, are relying on to bounce back.

The challenge for the government is a daunting one – and the increase in the time we now spend online is illustrative of the delicate balancing act they must achieve. The ability to work, bank and shop remotely offers huge convenience. Many of the changes people have made to their lives will be here to stay. Yet the increasing move to a digital world has presented problems and risks, such as the significant increase in online scams, that haven’t yet been adequately addressed.

Harnessing the positives and neutralising the risks that have arisen for consumers won’t be easy. Changes that may have taken years have happened almost overnight in some cases and that needs to be caught up with.

At Which?, we believe the government should empower consumers to lead our economic recovery, and there are many ways it can do this. Building on already existing legislation or consultations, there are three areas where Ministers can make markets work more fairly, and bring an end to rogue business practices that all too often see everyday people get ripped off.

First, competition and consumer policy requires reform to give such regulators as the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) sharper teeth, with proper powers to act as deterrents for unscrupulous companies that break consumer laws. In practice, that means swift and effective redress when customers are wronged, and proper accountability for businesses using unfair practices in dealing with consumers – as some have during the pandemic.

In the digital space, a handful of dominant tech giants, including Facebook and Google, can no longer be allowed to stymie competition and reduce innovation in the sector. The newly-formed Digital Markets Unit, operating out of the CMA, is a step in the right direction – but it won’t protect consumers unless it is equipped with the necessary enforcement powers, including the ability to hand down heavy fines.

Second, if consumers are to feel more confident engaging with new technology and new markets, then they will need to feel safe being online. It is no coincidence that fraud has surged by a third compared to last year. Yet with some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, there are measures that giant online platforms – such as those named above – which so many of us use everyday, can and must do to prevent the avalanche of fake adverts that makes it far too easy for fraudsters to target victims from appearing on their sites in the first place.

Which? research earlier this year found that four in ten investment scams begin online. The government has taken positive action to tackle aspects of online safety by introducing the draft Online Safety Bill – but, as it stands, it will fall short of swiftly dealing with all online fraud. Unless it provides online platforms with the legal responsibility to prevent, identify and remove fake and fraudulent content on their sites, including paid for ads, then fraudsters will continue to exploit their systems and services to carry out a crime that can cause a devastating amount of financial and emotional harm for its victims.

Third, as numerous new tech products furnish our homes, customers must be confident that they are safe to use. Smart gadgets and devices can bring huge benefits to consumers’ lives, but these products must be properly safeguarded with strong security protections to prevent cyberattacks.

The Government’s upcoming Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill will scrutinise this. However, if Ministers are serious about cracking down on insecure and unsafe products in our homes, online marketplaces and retailers must be given additional legal obligations in the Bill for ensuring the safety and security of the products sold on their sites – and for customers to get appropriate redress when they buy faulty products.

Taking action in these three areas means that the Government needn’t magic legislation out of thin air to begin empowering and protecting consumers. Indeed, the government pledged to give the CMA enhanced powers to tackle rip-offs in its manifesto.

Here are the foundations from which to make people feel confident that the economy is working for them. To do so would really build back better.

Sarah Ingham: Tech, tax – and out of this world wealth

12 Jun

Sarah Ingham is a writer and a Conservative Party member.

It’s been a good week for Chancellor of the Exchequer and a so-so seven days for the richest man on the planet, Jeff Bezos.

The agreement between G7 Finance Ministers to introduce a global minimum tax rate of 15 per cent on businesses was hailed as historic by Rishi Sunak. This should lead to “the largest multinational tech giants paying their fair share of tax in the UK”.

“About time too!” cries Britain, nodding in approval at this “seismic tax reform” – ©No 11 Downing Street.

The full consequences of the tech revolution we have been living through for the past two decades or so are, as yet, unknown. Dot dot dot com. The most tangible IRL effect can be seen in the nation’s high streets which have been hollowed out by the switch to online shopping and services such as banking.

In 2006 – tech world’s pre-iPhone Pleistocene epoch – online sales accounted for 2.8 per cent of total retail sales in Britain, according to the Office for National Statistics. By June 2019, this had risen to 18.3 per cent. In January this year, a whopping 36.3 per cent of all retail sales were online. Lockdown, the government’s chosen response to Covid-19, accelerated an existing trend.

In March, USDAW highlighted that many retailers and their employees were at ‘breaking point’, with 180,000 jobs lost and 16,000 store closures in 2020. Famous names went into administration, including Laura Ashley and Jaeger. While Debenhams and the Arcadia Group, which includes Topshop, live to fight another day as brands, the rescue package for both did not include the bricks-and-mortar stores, resulting in 25,000 job losses, 80 per cent of them women employees.

Months before the Covid virus decimated the travel industry, Thomas Cook collapsed, stranding 150,000 holidaymakers abroad. Founded in 1841, the travel agency toppled under the weight of old-fashioned debt as much as innovations in the sector. The firm’s slogan ‘Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it’ became as redundant as its 560 town centre stores, because millions of us chose to cut out the middleman and book a trip ourselves. A few clicks on a smart device secured us a budget airline ticket to fly us to our Airbnb.

How concerned have we been about the advance of e-commerce? Online shopping can be seen a quicker, easier, twenty-first century version of mail order catalogues, which have been a huge social benefit ever since the mid nineteenth century.

‘Don’t Be Evil’ has now been removed from Google’s code of conduct. Turning Britain’s social fabric inside-out is not exactly evil, but has been far from an unalloyed public benefit. It is, however, too easy to blame the tech giants, rather than examining our own code of conduct as individual consumers: ‘Alexa, save my local bookshop.’ Communities are not built or sustained by us sitting on our backsides watching a movie on Netflix while we tuck into a Deliveroo.

‘As public finances are ever more strained due to Covid-19, the public’s tolerance for tax avoidance by multinational companies is nil,” declares the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, in its Secretary-General Tax Report to G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors. Really? Tax evasion is illegal and tests public tolerance. Tax avoidance is about exploiting the loopholes caused by an unnecessarily complex taxation system overseen by finance ministers and central bank governors.

The OECD worked on the proposals to rewrite the global tax rules which are being advanced by Sunak and his G7 colleagues. In the days since the announcement confusion has arisen, not least about whether any changes will be agreed by the G20 and if Britain is seeking to get financial services excluded from the reforms.

Alexa, is the UK’s Digital Services Tax going to be scrapped in exchange for the global tech tax? Effective from April 2020, HMRC predicted it would raise £515 million by 2024/25. It seems that tech firms might actually pay less into the UK’s coffers if the reforms were adopted and digital sales tax abolished.

The tech titans themselves seemed none-too-bothered by this possible new assault on their finances. Apart from Netflix, the other four FAANGs – Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google – have seen their share prices rise in the past week.

Just as possible changes to the international tax system have come onto the agenda, details of US billionaires’ tax returns have mysteriously found their way into the public domain. Tada!

Warren Buffett is among the Croesus-rich outed by investigative journalists at ProPublica as paying little or nothing in the way of income tax. Perhaps the OECD’s Tax Inspectors Without Borders team can explain to breathless hacks the difference between income and capital.

Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, whose personal wealth has ping-ponged around the $200 billion mark since last August, apparently paid no income tax during 2007 and 2011, while Tesla’s Elon Musk, vying with Bezos for pole position in the global wealth stakes, paid none in 2018. Neither has done anything illegal. The public was probably far less tolerant of Amazon withholding tips to its delivery drivers, for which it was fined $62 million in February.

Perhaps their stratospheric wealth explains Bezos and Musk’s fascination with space exploration. It would be easy to write off the attitude of both as ‘only little earthlings pay taxes’, but the current taxation system, bound up as it is with national sovereignty, allows them to get away with it. If we had the money, and the money to afford the accountants, we’d probably all be into ‘tax planning’, which is fancy pants for haggling with HMRC.

Time for flat taxes, Chancellor. And, BTW, voters have a tolerance for keeping their own money rather than handing it over in taxes – even to you.

Robert Palmer: To support the levelling up agenda, the Government should follow Biden’s plan to tackle corporate tax avoidance

19 Apr

Robert Palmer is the Executive Director of Tax Justice UK.

Few issues annoy Conservative voters more than Facebook, Google and other global companies paying ultra-low levels of tax in the UK.

Whether it’s pensioners, Brexiteers, Red Wallers, people with degrees or those who failed to get a single GCSE, polling shows that they all unite in frustration at companies that avoid their obligations on tax.

Conservatives like Kevin Hollinrake, the MP for Thirsk and Malton, and Anthony Browne, who represents South Cambridgeshire, understand these frustrations. Companies like Netflix have been hauled over the coals in parliament, with MPs across parties demanding it explain why it paid so little UK tax.

Netflix, famous for box sets like The Crown, hit boom times during the pandemic. Even before Covid, the entertainment tech giant booked £860 million in subscriptions from UK customers alone via its Amsterdam-based subsidiary, but paid very little tax here. MPs are understandably concerned to make sure the likes of Netflix pay a fair share in the UK.

In a parliamentary debate last year, Browne said: “What any fair-minded person objects to is aggressive tax avoidance which results in companies or people paying less tax than is clearly their fair share.”

In its 2019 manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to continue to lead “the international fight against aggressive tax avoidance and offshore tax havens”.

Last week President Joe Biden announced a plan that could end the “race to the bottom” on corporate tax. It comes just a month after Rishi Sunak pledged in the March Budget to increase corporation tax to 25 per cent by 2023.

The US President is proposing that companies should pay at least 21 per cent on their profits as part of a package of global reforms. This would make it much harder for global companies, like Amazon, to get away with paying very low rates of tax by stashing their profits in offshore tax havens.

Far from stifling UK businesses, the Biden plan would give companies a chance to compete fairly against the global giants and their clever accounting.

Areas of the UK that lost out under globalisation, could reap the rewards from the overdue reform of the way global multinationals are taxed. There’s nothing buccaneering about keeping our antiquated global tax system in place.

Research shows that the plan for a global minimum corporation tax could raise £13.5 billion a year in the UK.

Raising corporation tax is popular among Conservative voters and the rest of the voting population. Bringing in more money from companies is also compatible with the levelling up agenda.

The centre-right think tank Onward, recently called for the Government to level up the tax system. Its research highlights that corporation tax receipts are concentrated in the wealthy South East of the country. This is partly skewed by the fact that many companies are headquartered in London. However, even with this factored in, over the last decade the corporate tax take has declined in the North and Scotland, while it has risen in the South.

Red Wall voters are desperate to see investment in their communities. The £13.5 billion that could be raised through adopting Biden’s plan, much of it likely to be paid by tech giants, would help us invest in things like broadband to bridge the gap between rural and urban areas.

It’s clear that the Conservatives’ new electoral coalition is more left wing on economic issues. This is in part driven by increasing support in the Red Wall constituencies in the North and Midlands. These voters want to see higher levels of public investment and support tax increase to help deliver this.

So far there’s been some indication that the UK government is interested in the idea of a global minimum corporate tax rate, but won’t yet sign up to Biden’s proposed 21 per cent rate.

On Wednesday, the Treasury Minister Lord Agnew responded to a question in the House of Lords about Biden’s plan from the Green Party’s Baroness Bennett. The Minister said that “the UK was at the forefront of initiating global action on international tax”. He backed global efforts to reform the global corporate tax rules and said that the Treasury was looking at the US proposals.

In June, Johnson will show leadership to the world as the UK plays host to the world’s richest countries at the G7 summit. Getting global agreement for a global minimum corporation tax will be near the top of the agenda for the US President.

The 2013 G8 summit in Northern Ireland saw a Conservative-led government push through a global agreement to tackle tax evasion and avoidance. Those changes have made a real difference and ended some of the more egregious practices.

A G7 summit in our own backyard will be front page news in the UK. It’s in this government’s interests to support President Biden’s plans to tackle corporate tax avoidance. This would be good politics given the popularity of cracking down on tax loopholes and the billions that could be raised to support levelling up.

Jason Reed: Dowden’s latest task? Regulating the internet. Here’s what Australia can teach us about that challenge.

10 Mar

Jason Reed is the UK liaison at Young Voices, a policy fellow with the Consumer Choice Center and a communications advisor for the British Conservation Alliance.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden finds himself burdened with an almighty task: regulating the internet. His new ‘Digital Markets Unit’, set to form part of the existing Competitions and Markets Authority, will be the quango in charge of regulating the social media giants. Dowden, like the rest of us, is now trying to discern what can be learned by rummaging through the rubble left behind by the regulatory punch-up between Facebook and the Australian government over a new law forcing online platforms to pay news companies in order to host links to their content.

Google acquiesced immediately, agreeing to government-mandated negotiations with news producers. But Facebook looked ready to put up a fight, following through on its threat to axe all news content from its Australian services. It wasn’t long, though, before Mark Zuckerberg backed down, unblocked the Facebook pages of Australian newspapers and, through gritted teeth, agreed to set up a direct debit to Rupert Murdoch.

The drama down under has been met with a mixed response around the world, but it is broadly consistent with the trend of governments shifting towards more and more harmful and intrusive interference in the technology sector, directly undermining consumers’ interests and lining Murdoch’s pockets. The EU, for one, is keen to get stuck in, disregarding the status quo and unveiling its ambitious plan to keep tabs on the tech giants.

In the US, the situation is rather different. Some conspiracy theorists – the type who continue to believe that Donald Trump is the rightful president of the United States – like to allege that the infamous Section 230, the item of US legislation which effectively regulates social media there, was crafted in cahoots with big tech lobbyists as a favour to bigwigs at Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on. In reality, Section 230 was passed as part of the Communications Decency Act in 1996, long before any of those companies existed.

Wildly overhyped by many as a grand DC-Silicon Valley conspiracy to shut down the right’s online presence, Section 230 is actually very short and very simple. It is, in fact, just 26 words long: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Not only is this a good starting point from which to go about regulating the internet – it is the only workable starting point. If the opposite were true – if platforms were treated as publishers and held liable for the content posted by their users – competition would suffer immensely. Incumbent giants like Facebook would have no problem employing a small army of content moderators to insulate themselves, solidifying their position at the top of the food chain. Meanwhile, smaller companies – the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow – would be unable to keep up, resulting in a grinding halt to innovation and competition.

Another unintended consequence – a clear theme when it comes to undue government meddling in complex matters – would be that vibrant online spaces would quickly become unusable as companies scramble to moderate platforms to within an inch of their lives in order to inoculate themselves against legal peril.

Even with the protections currently in place, it is plain how awful platforms are at moderating content. There are thousands of examples of well-intentioned moderation gone wrong. In January, the Entrepreneurs Network’s Sam Dumitriu found himself plonked in Twitter jail for a tweet containing the words “vaccine” and “microchip” in an attempt to call out a NIMBY’s faulty logic. Abandoning the fundamental Section 230 provision would only make this problem much, much worse by forcing platforms to moderate much more aggressively than they already do.

Centralisation of policy in this area fails consistently whether it comes from governments or the private sector because it is necessarily arbitrary and prone to human error. When Facebook tried to block Australian news outlets, it also accidentally barred the UK-based output of Sky News and the Telegraph, both of which have Australian namesakes. State-sanctioned centralisation of policy, though, is all the more dangerous, especially now that governments seem content to tear up the rulebook and run riot over the norms of the industry almost at random, resulting in interventions which are both ineffectual and harmful.

The Australian intervention in the market is so arbitrary that it could easily have been the other way around: forcing News Corp to pay Facebook for the privilege of having its content shared freely by people all over the world. Perhaps the policy would even make more sense that way round. If someone was offering news outlets a promotional package with a reach comparable to Facebook’s usership, the value of that package on the ad market would be enormous.

Making people pay to have their links shared makes no sense at all. Never in the history of the internet has anybody had to pay to share a link. In fact, the way the internet works is precisely the opposite: individuals and companies regularly fork out large sums of money in order to put their links on more people’s screens.

If you’d said to a newspaper editor twenty years ago that they would soon have free access to virtual networks where worldwide promotion of their content would be powered by organic sharing, they would have leapt for joy. A regulator coming along and decreeing that the provider of that free service now owes money to the newspaper editor is patently ludicrous.

That is not to say, however, that there is no role for a regulator to play. But whether or not the Digital Markets Unit will manage to avoid the minefield of over-regulation remains to be seen. As things stand, there is a very real danger that we might slip down that road. Matt Hancock enthusiastically endorsed the Australian government’s approach, and Oliver Dowden has reportedly been chatting with his counterparts down under about this topic.

The humdrum of discourse over this policy area was already growing, but the Australia-Facebook debacle has ignited it. The stars have aligned such that 2021 is the long-awaited point when the world’s governments finally attempt to reckon with the tech behemoths. From the US to Brussels, from Australia to the Baltics, the amount of attention being paid to this issue is booming.

As UK government policy begins to take shape, expect to see fronts forming between different factions within the Conservative Party on this issue. When it comes to material consequences in Britain, it is not yet clear what all this will mean. The Digital Markets Unit could yet be a hero or a villain.

Neil O’Brien: Lessons we can learn from fast-growing countries to help us to grow faster

8 Mar

Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

Here’s a striking thing: several countries which suffered decades of communism are now richer than large parts of the UK. In 2018, the GDP per head of Yorkshire, Northern Ireland and the East Midlands (where I’m writing from) were all below Slovenia. Wales and the North East were lower: below Portugal, Estonia and Lithuania. All are now poorer than the old East Germany.

Radical change is needed to claw our way back into the top economic league. And unless we raise growth we won’t escape from demographic trends putting upward pressure on taxes. If you look at countries that have enjoyed rapid growth, they have in common a conscious drive to increase their knowledge, investment and technology.

Take the east Asian countries. Japan, Korea, Taiwan and now China, all followed the same playbook and saw dramatic growth.

Between 1945 and 1970 Japan went from a 20 per vent of the GDP per person of the US to two thirds, rising to 85 per cent by the late 80s. When I was born GDP per person in Korea was a quarter of the UK level. Now they are roughly the same. To have seen as much economic growth as a Korean pensioner has in their lifetime, a British pensioner would have to have been born in the reign of George III.

All four invested heavily in bringing new technologies to the country. Through a mix of government support for new industries and control over the financial system they supported firms to enter new higher tech industries, and soak up the inevitable losses as they learned on the job. For example, TSMC, now the world’s leading chipmaker, was a originally part owned by the Taiwanese government. Likewise Korea’s POSCO, now one of the world’s leading steelmakers.

But unlike many poor countries, they used internal competition between firms and global markets to discipline such subsidies. Companies that grew the national knowledge base and proved capable of export success got subsidies, tax breaks, free land and infrastructure; those that failed were ruthlessly culled (the opposite of what we did with British Leyland).

Industry ministries like MITI in Japan systematically researched and plotted the conquest of one industry after another. China’s NDRC and “Made in China 2025” are similar today. Taiwan created a huge science park and established consortiums of firms to share research, development and knowledge.

Various kinds of regulations and incentives encouraged sky-high rates of investment: even after easing off a lot Japan invests about 25 per cent GDP each year and Korea 30 per cent, compared to 17 per cent in the UK. All four went through periods of importing, copying or frankly ripping off western technologies.

Or if that seems too distant, take an example closer to home. Since 1990 average wages in Ireland went from being 5-12 per cent lower than the UK to being 7-15 per cent higher, depending how you measure it. Ireland attracted four times more inward investment than the UK relative to the size of its economy. Those foreign-owned firms have higher productivity: employing 22 per cent of people but accounting for 57 per cent of value added and 70 per cent R&D investment.

Some recent growth has been driven by highly specific and aggressive tax policies. But the seeds of Ireland’s growth were sown in earlier decades, when Ireland opened up to foreign direct investment and introduced a zero tax rate for manufacturing exporters. From the mid 80’s, Ireland specifically targetted investments from higher tech firms: Microsoft arrived in 1985, Intel arrived in 1989, Amazon, Bell Labs, MSD, Google, Twitter and Facebook in the 90’s and 00’s.

The Irish Development Agency operates a sort of concierge service for inward investors, and recent court cases like that brought by the European Commission regarding Apple show how far Ireland has been prepared to go to attract leading tech firms.

What would it mean to learn from these fast-growing countries today?

First, attracting firms with leading knowhow. We’ve done it before: Mrs Thatcher wooed Nissan to Sunderland with tax breaks. Although evidence suggests previous tax breaks increased foreign investment into poorer parts of Britain, we gradually phased them out, only partly due to EU rules. So the creation of the new Office for Investment is a good start.

Second, improving our innovation-industrial system. Total investment in R&D in the UK is just way too low. The UK invested 1.7 per cent GDP on R&D in 2018, China 2.1 per cent, the US 2.8 per cent, Germany 3.1 per cent, Sweden and Japan 3.3 per cent, South Korea 4.5 per cent and Israel 4.9 per cent. Across the world there’s a clear correlation between government investment and business investment.

However, government investment is more geared towards prompting business investment in some countries. We’re now growing government investment in R&D after decades of neglect, but we must also make it more business-focused. Government should implement the proposals set out in a recent NESTA report to support innovation in poorer parts of the UK.

Third, we need to bring the same focus to manufacturing and tech policy that we’ve had for decades on financial services. We have a city minister, and have quite rightly intervened and changed the tax system to promote financial services, because finance has high wages and productivity growth.

But so do manufacturing and IT. Between 1998 and 2018 output per hour grew £20.60 in manufacturing and £22.70 in IT, compared to £11.90 in leisure, £11.50 in retail, £9.50 in admin support services and £7.20 in accommodation.

Outside London, weekly pay in manufacturing is nearly a quarter higher than the economy as a whole. However, over recent decades poorer parts the UK have seen employment dramatically shifting out of manufacturing, and into these slower-growing local services. Though this holds down unemployment, it represents a sort of economic Dunkirk. The pace of this shift has dramatically slowed since 2010, but not been reversed.

Fourth, we need to address the UK’s longstanding low rates of physical investment. As the excellent Plan for Growth published last week noted: “The UK has a lower proportion of innovating firms overall than other advanced economies and weaker business investment”.

One cause of this is that Britain has had the most miserly tax allowances for investment in the G20. So the “super deduction” unveiled by Rishi Sunak last week is a huge step in the right direction. It should boost investment everywhere, but particularly in poorer places where there is more manufacturing.

Last but not least, a lesson from the high growth countries is about making sure that finance serves growth, rather than itself.

Again, the budget saw steps in the right direction. The Hill Review will enable dual class shares, which tech firms (like Google, Facebook, Lyft, Pintrest etc) increasingly use to offset market pressures for short termism. The new Infrastructure Bank in Leeds will catalyse private infrastructure investment, while further extensions of the British Business Bank will support lending and equity for growing companies (it is gradually filling the hole where 3i used to be).

The next challenge is to unlock more institutional investment into venture capital. Sunak has set in train a review of the EU-imposed Solvency II regulations for insurers. Shifting even a small sliver of such vast institutional cashpiles out of gilts and into growth enhancing venture capital could be transformative for growing businesses. There’s also arguments for reviewing similar rules around pensions too.

Making Britain into a tiger economy is a daunting challenge – particularly its less prosperous parts. But the challenges facing other countries at different times have been at least as daunting. If we don’t want a future of ever higher taxes and slow growth, we simply have to make it happen.

Daniel Hannan: If a restaurant can refuse to serve you, Amazon can refuse to host Parler

20 Jan

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Trump’s Twitter ban is being treated as a free speech issue, but it isn’t. Properly understood, it’s a free association issue. The First Amendment to the US Constitution does not give Americans the right to say whatever they want in whatever forum they please. What it says is that “Congress shall make no law” abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.

In other words, provided you stop short of direct incitement to criminality, you can legally say whatever you like. But, though the government can’t shut you up, there is no obligation on anyone else to provide you with a microphone. You have the right to free speech, but everyone else has the right to free association. A restaurant can refuse to serve you because you’re not wearing a tie. A hotel can turn you away because it doesn’t cater for children. An online platform can reject your custom because it doesn’t like your opinions.

Whether a platform is wise to exercise that right is a different question. When I was an MEP, Facebook, Google and the rest used to fall over each other to assure us that they had no editorial control, and therefore could not be held liable for anything that appeared under their banners. That argument is now redundant, and I suspect the big tech companies will come to regret the shift. But, as a matter of broad principle, our starting assumption should be that a private company can set its own terms and conditions and pick its own customers.

Freedom of assembly and association is, or ought to be, as fundamental a right as freedom of speech and expression. We talked a great deal about the loss of our liberties in 2020, but it wasn’t our right to worship, speak out or cast a ballot that was suspended. The heaviest constraint, the one we all felt, was being unable to congregate as we pleased.

You might think that the lockdowns would have made us appreciate a liberty that, in normal times, we take for granted. That, though, is not how politics works. In practice, every age sacralises certain values, lifting them above the run of normal debate. In mediaeval Europe, the works of the ancient philosophers were judged, not by their accuracy or logic, but by their compatibility with Christian orthodoxy. In our own day, it is the tenets of identity politics that have been sacralised.

Thus, instead, of having an abstract conversation about the value of free expression in a manner that John Milton or J S Mill would have recognised, we start by asking whether it is ok for people to say racist things – an odd way to settle a general principle.

Likewise, when it comes to free association, lots of people see the debate solely through the prism of whether an imaginary private club would be allowed to exclude someone on grounds of ethnicity – a scenario that could come about, I suppose, though it would surely be very rare in this day and age. Hard cases make bad law, goes the saying; and hard putative scenarios make bad general precepts. The correct way to determine our position on human rights is to start from first principles and then see how those principles apply to specific cases rather than the reverse.

What should our first principles be here? Most obviously, a presumption in favour of liberty and property. If people are to be prevented from getting together in whatever combinations they please, there needs to be a good reason. An epidemic might be such a reason. The expectation of equal treatment as a citizen might be another.

In balancing the competing claims of private property and non-discrimination, many countries draw a distinction between ordinary businesses and companies defined as utilities, diluting the rights of the owners in the second category. We might, for example, say that the owner of a small café has the right not to serve her ex-husband, but that she would not have an equivalent right to refuse his custom if she owned an electricity company. We might say (indeed, the law broadly does say) that a religious baker should not be compelled to decorate a cake with a message celebrating gay marriage, but that a railway could not withhold its custom from gay people.

Obviously, people can reasonably disagree about where to draw the line. But wherever we draw it, it should then apply to everyone equally. Equality before the law means precisely that. Either the café owner has the right to refuse someone service or she has not. “Laws” as Hayek said, “must be general, equal and certain”.

Where does that leave us with Twitter banning Trump, Amazon banning Parler and the rest? Well, either they are defined as utilities or they are not. If they are, then regulators can tell them whom to serve. If they are not, then they can ban anyone they like: Republicans, Protestants, left-handed people, cartwrights. It’s one or the other.

There may be an immediate test of the principle as the lockdowns end. The Government has, quite rightly, said that it will not make vaccination compulsory or issue immunity certificates. But what if a cruise ship wants proof of vaccination before you board? What if a gym requires a certificate as a condition of membership? I reckon that free association gives them the right to set their own terms. But, either way, the law must be general, equal and certain.

If test and trace is to succeed, a centralised approach won’t work

9 Oct

Despite being initially hailed as the main way to manage Covid-19, test and trace has proven something of a nightmare for the Government. From technological flaws in its contact tracing app, to u-turns on whether to use Apple and Google’s technology, the papers have been filled with negative stories about progress in this area.

Perhaps it could be said that this week has provided the biggest headache so far for ministers, beginning with the news that 16,000 people who tested positive for Covid-19 between September 25 and October 2 disappeared from official records in England.

This was reportedly due to Public Health England (PHE) using an outdated version of Microsoft Excel to process data. The spreadsheet could only handle a limited amount of information, hence why so many contacts were missed.

The result is that there are potentially tens of thousands of infectious people who have not been contacted; indeed, NHS Test and Trace apparently had to track down an estimated 40,000 Covid-19 cases.

Matters were made worse by the fact that Ring Central, NHS Test and Trace’s call system, allegedly failed to work too – locking workers out of their profiles for prolonged periods.

As if that wasn’t troublesome enough, yesterday it was shown that NHS Test and Trace contact rate figures have reached their lowest rate yet, with 68.6 per cent of close contacts of individuals who’d tested positive for Covid-19 in England reached in the week ending September 30 (the system needs to reach 80 per cent of contacts in order to be considered viable). 

Furthermore, it was shown that fewer than one in four people testing positive for Covid-19 receive their results in 24 hours – a far cry from Boris Johnson’s initial pledge that, by the end of June, results of all in-person tests would be back within that timeframe.

With all of these events, the Government can look forward to even harsher criticisms from Keir Starmer and the opposition on testing, which has repeatedly been called a “shambles”.

No doubt many members of the public, too, are wondering how many more of these problems are to come in test and trace; whether the strategy will ever work, and what it means for their livelihoods in the meantime. So what exactly has gone wrong?

Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain the repeated weaknesses in the contact tracing system.

The first, straightforward one is that the Government simply did not plan enough for a pandemic. Whereas countries like South Korea were able to deploy pre-existing infrastructure for contact tracing, the Government started from scratch – creating NHS Test and Trace, which has had to “learn” on the job.

Even more significantly, NHS Test and Trace highlights an instinct of the Government that has run throughout this crisis; its tendency to create large-scale, centralised solutions to managing Covid-19, rather than utilising existing systems (one of the main examples being its initial desire to build a centralised contact tracing app – instead of going with Apple and Google’s technology).

Many will remember Dido Harding announcing of NHS Test and Trace at its inception: “This is a brand new service which has been launched at incredible speed and scale.” But it is this speed and scale that might explain why there have been so many issues – as rushing something out of this complexity in a pandemic represents huge logistical challenges.

It could be said that the Government has missed a trick by not tapping into local teams and networks to carry out processes such as contact tracing. This is why Germany, Italy and much of Asia have got ahead, using large-scale local investment and resources to do contact tracing.

And indeed, when England started to switch to using local contact tracers, it made a massive difference to success rates. In the week to September 30, for example, these teams were able to reach 97.1 per cent of contacts, much higher than NHS Test and Trace’s rate of 68.6 per cent (done via online messaging or phone calls).

The added advantage of local teams is that they can help ensure compliance in those contacted, some of whom may want to avoid call centres – wary that a number beginning 0300 could mean a tracing team is getting in touch.

It’s not only that devolving responsibilities can enhance the tracing process, but decentralisation can boost testing too – which smaller labs in universities and the private sector initially offered to help the Government with. Instead, it has mostly relied upon PHE labs and NHS trusts to carry out this work.

While the Government should be praised for how quickly it managed to scale up testing, there have been problems with laboratories being too slow to process results (allegedly as a result of over-reliance on post-graduate science students to analyse lab results, who were only there over summer), and incompatibilities between systems – both of which might have been addressed with a more decentralised approach, and flexibility about which labs were used.

Robert Buckland, Secretary of State for Justice, since said that the Government would open 100 more test centres, including a “mega lab” on the way to enhance capacity.

But maybe this brings us back to the initial point – that the Government’s quest for new systems, as opposed to tapping into local and/ or existing solutions, might ultimately hold it back in accelerating testing. Instead of devolving powers, the Government’s instinct has always been to take more responsibility.

Will there be a change to the direction the Government is going in? The shift to using more contact tracing teams is certainly promising – and should be built upon, but given the amount of money, energy and investment that has gone into Test and Trace – along with the Government’s recent plan to merge PHE and NHS Test and Trace into the new “National Institute for Health Protection” – centralisation seems one area it is reticent to u-turn on.

Kate Dommett and Sam Power: We must act now to protect our elections from foreign interference

25 Sep

Dr Kate Dommett (University of Sheffield), and Dr Sam Power (University of Sussex) are the authors of Democracy in the Dark: Digital Campaigning in the 2019 General Election and Beyond.

Only now are we beginning to get the real picture of what campaign spending looked like in the 2019 election. Our new analysis shows that the £19.5 million the Conservatives raised in this period is greater than the sum total of reported donations to all political parties in 2017 during the same pre-poll period (that stood at nearly £18.7 million).

Where did it go? The official spending returns aren’t yet out. But we can catch glimpses through social media giants’ ad archives.

Digital campaigning is a big business. We estimate that spending on social media platforms increased by over 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2017. Of this, the three main UK-wide parties spent around £6 million on Facebook and just under £3 million on Google.

While Facebook was used by all three national parties to a relatively equal extent, the Conservatives invested dramatically more in Google (which includes YouTube). The advertising archives suggest the party spent £1,765,500, dwarfing the combined spend of £873,300 made by Labour and the Liberal Democrat accounts on this platform.

Yet despite these large numbers, online spend by parties made up only a fraction of the total political ad spend overall. Why? Because we are seeing the rise of the ‘outrider’. These so-called ‘non-party campaigns’ often spring up in and around elections – with the public in the dark about how they are funded, and by who. In 2010 there were 18 of these bodies registered with the Electoral Commission; by 2015 that number had nearly doubled to 30, and last year the figure had doubled again to 64.

While digital campaigning has huge, positive potential to reach out to voters, there is much we don’t know about who is behind online content. This has led to urgent calls for change.

Many of you will be familiar with the practice of putting ‘imprints’ on printed campaign materials. Bizarrely, 15 years after the launch of Facebook in the UK, there’s still no such rule for online material meaning the provenance of these ‘outriders’ is often not widely known.

In this transparency vacuum, social media giants’ have set up their own online ad archives, allowing us a glimpse of the scale of campaigning. But anyone who has used them will know they are insufficient, error-riddled, and often too vague to be useful. Often, we just don’t know who’s targeting us online.

Analysis presented in the report coded data from Facebook to identify 88 UK organisations as non-party campaign groups active during the 2019 election. These groups placed 13,197 adverts at a calculated cost of £2,711,452. Facebook knows who they targeted and why, but they provide only limited information about this in the archive. This makes it impossible to know what exactly is happening, and suggests a need for more transparency.

Whilst the government has rightly pledged to implement online imprints, this remains out for consultation. Whatever the result, it only scratches the surface. We have revisited the many inquiries that have been explored the issue of digital campaigning to highlight a number of simple and proportionate recommendations to protect a free and transparent debate, around which there is broad and cross-party consensus.

The need for online imprints – and soon – is clear. However, currently donations under £500 are not classed as such, meaning foreign actors could split up donations into smaller amounts to shift our political debate. Companies funding political interventions only have to generate a nominal amount of income in the UK. A simple change in law could clarify that campaigning by non-UK actors is not allowed. Given concerns about Russian interference, this kind of enshrined principle is vital.

Many of the recommendations in this report echo existing calls to modernise electoral law to help rebuild trust in our democratic system. It’s why the report has been backed by Cheryl Gillan. As she notes, we need honest conversations about the need for “more transparency in the money spent on campaigning in the electoral process, particularly in the light of the rapidly developing digital world”. Despite the huge growth of online ads, what was spent on digital campaigning is far from clear.

“We must continue to examine how we can ensure we have free and fair elections and what changes are necessary to our laws as technology continues to advance,” Dame Cheryl writes.

We cannot leave our electoral integrity in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley giants. Unfortunately, recent years have seen parties and campaigners become even more cautious about disclosing information about their campaign activities online.

Maintaining transparency needs an independent regulator, which is why we are concerned by threats to abolish the Electoral Commission if it cannot be ‘radically overhauled’. The ICO has major clout to investigate alleged wrongdoing when it comes to our data. We must give the same – if not more – gravity to our free elections.

With elections due to take place across the UK in May 2021, we cannot let the urgent task of ensuring our electoral integrity be kicked into the long grass once more, or set-backwards through the rash dismantling of our watchdog.

At present, it is exceedingly difficult if not impossible to uphold the fundamental principles of our democracy: of openness, transparency, and public trust. Digital campaigning has the potential to be hugely positive – provided we don’t let secrecy rule the day.