There’s a serious discussion to have about data and electoral law, but it is yet to take place.

Our democracy is poorly served by widespread ignorance about campaign technology, and the fact glamorous alarmism wins more headlines than grubby reality.

Back in March, I warned that a failure by politicians and commentators to understand what data does and does not do for political campaigns is obscuring debate on crucial issues relating to our democracy. Widespread ignorance of the true practicalities of new approaches – or the application of new technology to old approaches – has left the field open for a combination of wild alarmists and opportunist snake-oil merchants to further muddy an already little-understood topic.

Make no mistake: there are very real questions about how to update and strengthen our electoral law. I laid out several such questions in August.

Failing to answer them will leave us reliant on laws and institutions that are already ill-suited to the digital age, and which are becoming more obsolete with every passing year. Alternatively, answering them wrongly, particularly on the basis of partial or flawed information, will equip us with defences which might be shiny and new but aren’t up to the task or able to adapt to future challenges. In addition, viewing technology only as a threat to democracy would represent a serious missed opportunity to improve engagement, debate and understanding.

In other words, we need to get this right. But achieving the necessary clarity to produce the necessary good answers is made harder by the existence of plenty of charlatans who are keen to take advantage of the fact that most people don’t know much about the topic, still less about the technicalities. And such people have a shared interest in distorting the discussion.

For every person with a conspiracy theory about a magical black box which they would like to believe is the real reason for their defeat at the ballot box, there is a salesman to confirm that yes, that box really does contain a wonder-weapon capable of controlling people’s minds, and yes we do accept cheques for the eye-watering sums required to recruit it to your team. Add in the natural media preference for attention-grabbing alarm over rather more dull reality, and the environment is not ideal for producing sensible, practical solutions.

This week’s report on data in the EU referendum campaign by the Information Commissioner’s Office tends to bear out what I argued in the spring. The report provides further basis for very real and serious concerns about how data was misused and data rights breached, by a variety of actors on various sides of the referendum, while finding apparently no sign of the grandiose theories that were touted in some quarters about Vote Leave. And yet the latter has garnered the lion’s share of publicity, while the former has been relegated to the status of a mere backdrop.

That does a dis-service to our democracy. The grubby business of harvesting contact and demographic data against people’s wishes, and exploiting a populace who are under-aware of the reasons to value and defend their data, before flogging it for a quick buck or using it for marketing spam, is not as glamorous or titillating as fantastical ideas of dark arts, hi-tech psychological manipulation, and shadowy conspiracies, but the evidence keeps suggesting that it is the former problem which really exists, and which requires close scrutiny. And yet the incentives appear to be mismatched – those who want to make a name for themselves do better hyping up what is flimsy but glitzy, while neglecting issues that are real but less exciting.

The ICO report shows that there are real, important and pressing problems to inform the public about, and on which to begin to base reforms to the law. Allowing that real need to be obscured by flights of fancy has done our democracy no good whatsoever.

Brexit campaign group and backers face £135K in data misuse fines

The UK’s ICO announced it would fine Leave.EU and Arron Banks’ Eldon Insurance £60K each for breaching privacy laws.

LONDON — The U.K. data watchdog plans to fine the Brexit campaign group Leave.EU and Eldon Insurance — the company owned by Arron Banks, a top donor to the unofficial campaign — for “serious breaches” of electronic marketing laws.

The Information Commissioner’s Office said in a report it would fine Leave.EU and Eldon Insurance £60,000 each for breaching privacy and electronic communications law. A separate £15,000 fine is due to be levied against Leave.EU for sending emails to Eldon customers with Leave.EU newsletters.

U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s investigation into the use of data during the European Union referendum in 2016 found more than one million emails had been sent to Leave.EU subscribers over two separate periods.

These emails included marketing for “GoSkippy” services — the trading name of the Eldon Insurance company, owned by Leave.EU founder and donor Arron Banks. Almost 300,000 emails were also sent to Eldon Insurance customers containing a Leave.EU newsletter.

Denham said she was also investigating allegations Eldon Insurance shared customer data with the Leave.EU campaign.

The revelation came in an Information Commission report probing the use of data in the European Union referendum, published on Tuesday. It said it had uncovered “disturbing disregard for voters’ personal privacy” and “significant issues, negligence and contraventions of the law.”

Denham also said she had issued “assessment notices” to the three main credit reference agencies —  Experian, Equifax and Call Credit — and is in the process of conducting audits. Assessment notices have also been issued to data brokers Acxiom Ltd, Data Locator Group Ltd and GB Group PLC, the report said.

“Serious breaches of data protection” by Cambridge Analytica — the data analytics firm which used personal information harvested from more than 50 million Facebook profiles without permission —  had been identified, and a “substantial fine” would have been issued to the company if it was not in administration, Denham’s 112-page dossier also said.

The report was published ahead of Denham’s appearance in front of a select committee hearing with MPs on Tuesday.

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Tim Berners-Lee: ‘I don’t regret creating the web’

But the creator of the world wide web wants governments, companies and citizens to reshape the internet for the 21st century.

LISBON — Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web, has no regrets.

Despite trolls, misinformation and harmful content filling up the internet, the 63-year-old British engineer said he believed the positive effects of his creation outweighed its downsides — though he warned about the need to keep the web open and free for all.

“I don’t regret creating the web,” Berners-Lee told POLITICO at Web Summit, a technology conference in the Portuguese capital.

But, he added: “A couple of years ago, I realized there was a change of attitudes. We can’t assume that connectivity will inevitably lead to more understanding.”

Twenty-eight years after Berners-Lee’s invention, his World Wide Web Foundation published a manifesto on Monday urging governments and companies around the world to boost connectivity, give people greater control over their data and provide a safe haven for debate.

His call for greater control over personal data echoes a shift among policymakers, who on both sides of the Atlantic are pushing for greater restrictions on the global digital ecosystem.

From a digital tax in the United Kingdom to multibillion-euro antitrust fines from the European Commission against Google, officials are moving to sanction and impose rules on digital giants.

Digital rights campaigners are similarly trying to keep the web open to all, avoiding a so-called “splinternet” in which different countries or regions follow contrasting rules of the online highway. Tech giants are also looking to reshape their relationship with users amid concerns that the balance of power has shifted too much in favor of some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, particularly in light of recent data scandals at tech giants like Facebook.

“We believe we need stronger rules that give people greater control,” Mounir Mahjoubi, France’s digital minister, told POLITICO in Lisbon. “The web can’t just be decided by the strongest actors.”

France is the first government to sign up to Berners-Lee’s new pledge, whose goals include promises to make it easier for all to access the internet, protect people’s rights online and keep the web safe from harmful material.

The European government joins 57 other organizations, including Google and Facebook, which similarly have pledged to spend the next six months working together to draw up proposals for how such lofty expectations can be put into practice. The aim, according to the Web Foundation, is to hold regular meetings between now and May, to hammer out the details and unveil a so-called “contract for the web” in late spring, 2019.

“A lot of discussion is a first good step,” Berners-Lee said. “We can set the agenda for lots of people.”

From talk to action

Much will depend on how the disparate organizations — everyone from Google and Facebook to Access Now, the digital rights group, and Tom Wheeler, the former head of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission — work with each other.

Despite common ground over removing the worst malicious content from the web and giving people control over their online information, many of these groups and individuals stand on different sides of the debate over how the internet should be regulated.

Such differences — including the role of large tech players in wider society and potential restrictions on government surveillance — are likely to come to the surface as Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation seeks to find compromises between the players over the future of the web.

France’s involvement in the project is particularly calculated.

While Emmanuel Macron, the country’s president, has made it his goal to make France more welcoming to startups and the rest of the tech industry, his government similarly has been championing the need for more regulation over large tech companies, as well as the potential imposition of new taxes on revenues generated from digital services.

“France wants to lead the way,” said Mahjoubi, the French digital minister. “We want to make the web impactful for the whole of humanity.”

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Challenges for liberalism 2: How should liberalism respond to the prevalence of social media?

Editor’s Note: These posts are based on a speech given by the author at an event organised by Leeds University Liberal Democrats. I’m not sure if social media is something we’ve invented or, like refined sugar, something we discovered by accident that superficially hits pleasure centres in the body to deliver a highly addictive, but ultimately […]

Editor’s Note: These posts are based on a speech given by the author at an event organised by Leeds University Liberal Democrats.

I’m not sure if social media is something we’ve invented or, like refined sugar, something we discovered by accident that superficially hits pleasure centres in the body to deliver a highly addictive, but ultimately unhealthy experience.

Liberals generally want to see drugs treated as a public health issue, rather than a criminal law issue, and I think there is possibly a lot of mileage in seeing social media in the same way.

However, I think there’s a bigger problem specifically for us, and that relates to the Paradox of Tolerance.

I’m sure everyone is familiar with that, but just in case the paradox of tolerance is that if you tolerate everything, including intolerance specifically aimed at ending tolerance, you destroy that environment of tolerance you were inhabiting in the first place.

This is why we don’t tolerate nazis.

And social media is an accidental Christmas gift to those guys.

Facebook has huge problems with being used by powerful people, in complete anonymity, to subvert democracy.

It is trying to address that, and some of the stuff it’s been doing recently shows some promise. Twitter though, oh dear…

Because of the complacency and social ineptitude of the people who run it, Twitter has evolved into a highly refined tool to spread lies and hate. It’s not even a case of putting lies and the truth on an equal footing. Twitter actively promotes and rewards liars and bigots, while punishing groups, such as those of us invested in liberal democracy, who are invested in telling the truth.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. I help curate the LGBT+ Lib Dems Twitter account. In the last local elections we did a load of tweets every 10 minutes or so promoting our LGBT+ candidates around the country.

I happen to know, because the Facebook group where they were organising it was leaked, that a bunch of a few dozen transphobes were submitting multiple abuse reports for every single tweet we made. Some of them were pretending to be 15 different people.

Eventually the Twitter algorithm, because it has to be an algorithm because Silicon Valley, right? Eventually it decides that there must be something to this, because how could so many reports be submitted over nothing?

Eventually it suspended our account. We eventually got it unsuspended, but I’m sure it’s getting hidden from a lot of timelines because Twitter’s algorithms have decided that it must be problematic.

We can’t counter this. There’s no human on the other end we can actually talk to and explain, “this is what’s going on here, please help protect us from this”. We can’t use the same techniques to defend ourselves because while we present a single big target, as an organised body of a political party, the other side uses troll farms, with dozens of new accounts daily.

And Twitter’s response to all of this is more algorithms, but the other guys see that as a challenge. It’s a computer game to them. We are constrained by playing by the rules of liberal democracy, and of our party. We are accountable for what we say. These guys have no accountability and regard lying, cheating and gaming the system as a means to an end. We can’t compete with that – it’s like trying to swat a swarm of mosquitos with a cricket bat.

Social media exemplifies the paradox of tolerance. Naively it’s a level playing field promoting freedom of speech for all. In reality it’s a toxic sewer that effortlessly turns our instincts for tolerance and freedom against us, and uses liberal democracy’s own strengths to poison it from within.

The first challenge for liberals is to recognise the scope and extent of this threat. The second is working out what the hell we do about it

* Sarah Brown is a Liberal Democrat activist from Cambridge, an Exec member of LGBT+ Lib Dems and a former Councillor in Cambridge