Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 27 November 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment
Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017 and the Influence of Social Media: Discussion (Resumed)
We will resume our scrutiny of the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017, which is a Private Members' Bill. I welcome Ms Karen White, who is the Twitter's director of public policy in Europe. I also welcome Ms Sherry Perreault, who is the Standards in Public Office Commission's head of ethics and lobbying regulation and also serves as the secretary to the commission. Both of them are very welcome.
Before we begin, I have to draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I also wish to advise the witnesses that any submission or opening statement made to the committee will be published on the committee's website after this meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind those present to put their phones on flight mode - we are not flying anywhere, but anyway - because they interfere with the sound system.
The opening statements of Ms White and Ms Perreault should not last more than five minutes in each case, although I will not be strict. I will indicate to them after four minutes that they have one minute left. Their presentations will be followed by a question and answer session.
Each member may ask a question not exceeding three minutes. I also ask members to wait until all presentations have concluded before putting their questions. I welcome Deputy Lawless and congratulate him on preparing the Bill and being on the official side of the room. Unfortunately the turnout at today's meeting has faced difficulties. The Chairman has gone to London for the hearings there and many members will be coming and going. That is the way it works with committees because there is so much activity, particularly today with the report on communications being published. Many people are engaged on that, including my colleague, Deputy Dooley. I invite Deputy Lawless to give a brief overview of the Bill.
The Acting Chairman has welcomed the witnesses and as sponsor of the Bill I second that welcome. I also echo the Acting Chairman's comments that turnout today may appear to be low because some colleagues are attending a meeting of our sister committee in Westminster and others are elsewhere. The transcript will be read in detail and people are watching online and through other fora. There is significant interest in the matter under discussion. I introduced the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill to the Dáil this time last year. It progressed through First Stage and passed Second Stage by majority vote of the Dáil and is now being scrutinised by the committee. This is the third or fourth session of detailed scrutiny by the committee. We are progressing through the detail of the Bill and I look forward to today's interaction.
The concept of the legislation is to apply the same degree of transparency and rigorous scrutiny to online political advertising as already exists for offline advertising. This will be achieved primarily by requiring that any political online advertisement carries a transparency notice. The technological and platform requirements of the transparency notice are deliberately non-specific. The notice can be very low-tech, such as a graphic designer working for the Leinster Leaderincluding a graphic with the text at the bottom, or it could be very high-tech, such as a sophisticated global platform including a widget that can be clicked to open to see more information. I have deliberately left this up to the platform in each case. What is required is that it makes known the publisher and sponsor of the advertisement so people who want to see whether somebody is being influenced by political advertising have the right to know who is seeking to bring it to his or her attention. People will be required to open an online account with a local newspaper or something as large as Twitter or Google and register who they are, who is behind them and what they are about. This could be a company registration number or a campaign office. This information must be accurate and it will be an offence for people to fail to provide accurate information on who they claim to be.
There are well established offences in the Electoral Acts and the Bill is consistent with them. When I was researching the Bill I uncovered more than 30 offences under the existing Electoral Acts for all kinds of offline campaigning. For example, if I put up a poster on a lamppost tonight if I am organising a public meeting or if I do so next year if there is an election I must disclose who arranged the poster and who published it and this must be written somewhere on the poster text. If I do not do this I can be subject to sanction. It is the same if I produce and distribute printed material in my constituency. At present, we do not have this online.
There is some confusion about the next matter and I will be interested to hear the views of SIPO on it. This is with regard to who governs the existing offences and what is the relevant enforcement agency. During the recent eighth amendment referendum there was a suggestion that people tried to make complaints in Garda stations and other facilities but there was confusion as to who was the responsible person to take the complaints and how the complaints should be recorded and enforced. I am sure SIPO will have comments on this.
The key concept of the Bill is that a disclosure notice appears on all online materials. There are two qualifications to this. The first is that it is with regard to paid political advertising. The Bill is not for ordinary home users giving out about how much they do not like a political party or how much they are for or against a particular referendum. It is aimed at professional users who are putting money behind a campaign and running sponsored advertisements or promoted posts. The second qualification is that the material is political in nature. I have a definition of political in the Bill, which is borrowed from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland's advertising regulations regarding what comprises political matter. It is quite broad. I would welcome the thoughts of SIPO on this. I have often felt that some of the Electoral Acts are very specific to the period within which a campaign is under way after the trigger is pulled, which may be 30 or 40 days before polling. Often opinions are formed and minds are made up long before this. I believe this is a lacuna in our electoral law and we should have a much longer run in with regard to who is influencing what and what type of disclosure is required for what type of window. I am open to suggestion on this aspect of the Bill.
I have mentioned the Bill is technology and platform neutral. It does not engage in specifics. The Bill attempt to be robust enough to futureproof itself but with intentions that are clear so there can be follow up and enforcement. There has been some debate about the penalties. The Bill suggests failure to provide a disclosure notice or the correct and accurate information will be liable to sanction. There will be a maximum penalty of five years in jail or a €10,000 fine. These are not my penalties; they are consistent with the more than 30 existing offences under the Electoral Acts. I admit they appear onerous but they are consistently onerous with what is already on the Statute Book. I am open to suggestion on this but I do think it is important that we are consistent. I suggest there is no degree of censorship. Free speech is protected in the legislation because it takes no view on the content of the advertisement or material. It merely requires that if the material is political in nature the disclosure notice should apply in terms of who is running the content.
There is provision in the Bill for bots, which are automated software driven mass fake accounts that purport to be something other than what they are. We speak about fake and organic. Fake means somebody can press a button and use a software tool to run multiple fake accounts and in one go they can retweet, like or share particular posts. The algorithms of the social media platforms push the posts up the system, which means they appear to more users and get more reach and traction. It is an easy way to game the system. It is important because they can influence people and can appear more popular than they actually are. It is an artificial popularity. There is absolutely no problem with a home user getting his or her friends to retweet something as it is part of normal democracy and free speech but the Bill does cover sophisticated operations running bot farms, and such things exist. We have seen examples of this in many elections throughout the world, from the US presidential election to the Brexit vote and votes in Spain, Italy, Africa and South America in the past two to three years. People run very specific operations with thousands of users at a time that are actually controlled by one entity but purport to be multiple individual users for organic purposes. I do not know whether anybody here watches "Homeland" but there was a particularly chilling episode recently where a very sophisticated bot farm was run out of a warehouse and all the bots were controlled by one person. It had the effect of multiplying one view and pretending it was the view of many.
The Government is not necessarily represented today but the Department is. A previous issue had been flagged with regard to section 3, which proposes to make illegal public spending for political purposes. The thinking behind the section is to reinforce the McKenna judgment that already prohibits this. The Department suggested this could curtail legitimate public consultation engagement. If this is the case I quite happy to remove the section from the Bill. There is a new Minister at the Department and I am not sure whether the Department has considered the section again. I look forward to this engagement.
This is a simple Bill that is badly needed. Evidence of this need has been growing and multiplying over the past three years and with every passing month there are more scandals, such as that involving Cambridge Analytica, and more allegations about the employment of various online manipulations. It is important to introduce the Bill in this jurisdiction and other jurisdictions are following its progress with interest. I hope it is something we can get behind and bring transparency to the online world in the same way as there is already in the offline world.
Ms Karen White:
I thank the committee for its invitation to Twitter to participate in today's session. I am director of public policy for Twitter in Europe.
I will outline some key elements of our election integrity work and then provide our observations on the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017.
Twitter is an open, public platform. Our singular mission is to serve the public conversation. We are a digital town square, where people from around the world come together in an open and free exchange of ideas. We see ourselves as a service that supports freedom of expression, open democratic debate and healthy civic discourse. Twitter’s number one priority is improving the collective health of the public conversation. This means encouraging more open debate and critical thinking, while simultaneously tackling issues such as spam and malicious automation, which can detract from the positive attributes of our service. Nowhere is this goal more important than during elections. Our election integrity work focuses on three critical areas: policy and product developments;detection and enforcement; and elections outreach and media literacy.
In 2018, we launched a suite of new products, tools and features to enhance and protect the safety of the public conversation and built a more transparent communication process with the people who use our service. A key development this year has been our adoption of a more proactive, technological approach to help us to detect violations of our rules and subsequently enforce our policies. We now use behaviour-based signals to automatically challenge things like inauthentic accounts strategically and at scale. Critically, this reduces the burden on people to report this type of content to us.
I would like now to step the committee through some of the specific election-related work we are doing in preparation for the European Parliament elections. Twitter is the home of real-time, vibrant political conversations which are happening right across the political, social and cultural spectrum. Twitter is a vital tool to connect, inform and illuminate, but it is equally vital that these political conversations are healthy. This is why protecting the integrity of elections is important for us. Across Europe, we have open, direct lines of communication with a range of stakeholders in the electoral arena. Our work with them ranges from training sessions on trust and safety and platform health to regular updates on our reporting and escalation procedures. For example, last week several of my colleagues addressed members and officials of the European Parliament to update them on our work ahead of next year's elections. This includes the roll-out of a political advertisements policy, our commitments to the code of conduct on disinformation and illegal hate speech, our rules and reporting procedures and safety and best practice training.
Earlier this year, Twitter launched a section on its website dedicated to election integrity to inform the public about its election related work. Ahead of the European Parliament elections, and as we roll out an EU-wide election awareness raising campaign, we will continue to provide information to the public and our users about efforts in using this channel. Our partner support portal will be expanded ahead of the elections. This portal enables election partners to provide feedback directly to us about issues and concerns that may arise during major elections and global political events and to expedite reports to us.
We recognise that a healthy democracy needs well-informed citizens. Industry, Government and educators must work together to equip citizens with better media and information literacy skills so that they can ask the right questions of content with which they engage and share online. In Ireland, we collaborate with a number of NGOs that are focused on civic engagement, digital citizenship and media literacy, including SpunOut.ie, UNICEF and the Union of Students in Ireland. We have worked with UNICEF Ireland and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment on digital citizenship programmes to help students across the country to improve the health of their online experience.We also recently announced a global partnership with UNESCO as part of global media and information literacy week.
Twitter welcomes the committee’s invitation to discuss the very important issues raised by the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017, and in particular, the stakeholder engagement that has been undertaken and the committee’s willingness to hear different viewpoints. Transparency is a core value of the work we do at Twitter. Our global advertisements transparency centre is a key evolution of our transparency commitment. Launched over the summer, it enables anyone - whether a Twitter user or not - to view every advertisement that has been served on Twitter over the previous seven days anywhere in the world. We appreciate what the Bill seeks to achieve and we are supportive of its goals. In many ways, what is being proposed mirrors what we are trying to achieve at Twitter around transparency in advertisements. We also welcome the overarching importance that has been placed on developing a legal framework that balances the aim of transparency with facilitating and protecting freedom of expression online. Much of the discussion in this committee has focused on particular definitions such as "directed towards a political end" and "bots", which we also welcome. We look forward to continuing to engage on these important issues and support the committees
work in this area.
I again thank the committee for inviting Twitter to be part of these discussions and I welcome any questions members may have.
Ms Sherry Perreault:
I, too, thank the committee for the invitation to appear before it today on behalf of the Standards in Public Office Commission. My name is Sherry Perreault and I am the head of ethics and lobbying regulation and secretary to the Commission. The Standards in Public Office Commission, in its current iteration, has been in place since 2001, replacing the former Public Offices Commission. The Commission comprises six members, including the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Ombudsman, the Clerk of Dáil Éireann, the Clerk of Seanad Éireann and a former member of the Oireachtas, and it is chaired by a former judge of the High Court. The current chairman is Mr Justice Daniel O’Keeffe.
The Commission oversees several pieces of legislation, along with their associated statutory instruments, which serve to support transparency and good governance. The Acts administered by the Commission are the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 and the Standards in Public Office Act 2001, which together are known as the ethics Acts and deal primarily with managing conflicts of interest; the Electoral Act 1997, as amended, which deals primarily with political financing; the Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Act 2014, which deals with the parliamentary activities allowance; and the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015, which provides transparency for decision-making processes.
Today, I intend to focus my remarks on the Commission's powers under the Electoral Acts, which I believe would be most relevant to these proceedings. Under the current legislation, the Commission oversees compliance with respect to the disclosure of donations to Deputies, Senators, parties, candidates and third parties; the expenditure of Exchequer funding; donation limits, declaration thresholds and prohibitions on certain donations; disclosure of election spending and spending limits at Dáil, European and Presidential elections; certification of election expenses for reimbursement; disclosure of political party accounts; registration of corporate donors; and registration of third parties. Candidates, elected officials, political parties and third parties are subject to the Act's obligations, including donation acceptance rules and disclosure obligations. To clarify, a third party is any individual or organisation that accepts a donation for political purposes valued at more than €100. The Standards in Public Office Commission has no role in disclosure of donations or electoral expenditure at local authority level.
The Commission has a role in issuing guidance and advice to those with obligations under the Acts. It is empowered to make inquiries under the Act and where the Commission is of the view that an offence under the Act has been committed it may refer the matter to the Director for Public Prosecutions. In practice, and at the request of the DPP, such referrals are made to An Garda Síochána in the first instance. In published reports, including its most recent annual report, the Commission has commented on areas of the Electoral Acts which it believes would benefit from review and modification. These include transparency in respect of expenditure at referendums, the disclosure of sources of funding to political and third parties, and the definitions of third parties and what constitutes a political purpose.While the Commission does have oversight of political donations, it has no statutory role to oversee the content of political advertising, whether it originates inside or outside the State.
The Commission recently commented on the issue of online advertising in its 2017 annual report as follows:
The landscape of political engagement has changed in the years since the Act was passed, with the Internet and social media now featuring heavily in any campaign. While there are prohibitions on foreign political donations other than in specific circumstances, the Commission notes with concern that individuals and organisations based outside of Ireland may fund political advertising or launch digital campaigns financed outside the State. As no legislative framework currently exists to address these matters, it would appear that an important and continually evolving tool in modern Irish political discourse (i.e. the internet) is unregulated. This allows for foreign actors to influence Irish elections and referendums, with potentially significant consequences.
In its report, the Commission called for a comprehensive review of the Electoral Acts with a view to addressing this issue, preferably in the context of the creation of an electoral commission. This summarises the role and statutory functions of the Commission I am happy to take questions from members.
I have a few questions of my own before we move around the table. I thank Ms White for the update and positive engagement. We are thinking along the same lines, which is great. I was aware that Twitter had been progressing these measures for some time in parallel.
Ms White mentioned a transparency platform. It seems to be along the lines of Facebook's platform to view advertisements, where one can go to see advertisements that others are running. I am aware that during the recent elections in the United States, there was an issue with "dark" advertisements, where someone could be disingenuous and run an advertisement targeting a segment of the population, with two different messages targeting different segments. The two different segments might never speak to each other and might never see the same advertisements, so a person could get away with saying two things to different groups of people. That was seen as politically dishonest. I am aware of a movement in the United States to do that. I am not sure that it is as much of an issue in Ireland. It is good that that has been progressed and tackled but a more fundamental issue is transparency about the advertisements. It is useful to see what other advertising campaigns are running but it is most important to see who is running a specific set of advertisements. I might have missed that in the presentation so I ask for clarification on that. Are there moves to ensure that sponsored tweets can be linked back to see who is running them? Is that part of the package? I thank Twitter for the blue tick, which I received recently. I am certainly above board.
I know a representative from Twitter mentioned bots in an earlier submission but they were not mentioned in the oral submission. It is important that we define bots. I welcome all input on this. I have tried to define "bots" in a specific way in the legislation to say that not all bots are bad. I use a bot for running and it prompts me every week about going out for my run. It can be quite useful. There are many innocent bots, such as "word of the day" bots and others. The way I have defined a "bot" in the legislation is as one that is deliberately masquerading as and purporting to be something that it is not. I have also set it to a level of 50 or more bots, to not have it apply to somebody is messing around at home. I welcome further debate on that.
I thank Ms Perreault for her statement. It seems to dovetail with what we are all saying here. I notice in the annual report for 2017 that there is a strong statement from SIPO, highlighting that there is a gap in the law and potential for manipulation, particularly by foreign actors. I thank Ms Perreault for highlighting that. SIPO set out the provisions that exist, the terms of which it is bound by. The unique thing about this House is that if we do not like the law, we can amend it. We need majority support and usually to have the Government onside but that is what we are here for. What would Ms Perreault like to see, whether this Bill or a variation of this? I welcome her thoughts on that.
Ms Karen White:
During the summer, we launched the Twitter global ads transparency center. That is available to any member of the public or user on Twitter. The objective is further transparency in the advertising process so that one can see what particular advertisements are running from a particular account. If I searched for the Deputy's account, I could see whether he had run any advertisements over the past seven days. Promoted advertisements on the platform take the form of promoted tweets, accounts and trends. They are the three types of promoted products that we have. As with organic content, our objective is to show the most relevant content. Businesses and charities come to Twitter with the objective of amplifying their message. The global ads transparency center was the first iteration and there will be further development on it in 2019.
With regard to the matter of bots, we welcome the many discussions that have taken place relating to definitions. I acknowledge that it is difficult to find a definition for bots. Academics and researchers have also struggled to find a definition. We had concerns relating to the definition of "to a political end". We have seen bots being used for positive reasons during major elections. In Brazil, as the Deputy highlighted and as I pointed out in my written statement, my colleagues worked with the Brazilian electoral court on a direct message chat bot. There are many positive use cases. In advance of the European elections, we would hope that we can advance more of these types of services. We seek clarification as to whether something such as that would fall foul of the Bill or would be allowed.
Ms Sherry Perreault:
With regard to changes that the commission would like to see to electoral legislation, it has made many recommendations over the years that relate to matters outside of this area. I will not take the committee's time enumerating those. The most relevant are the question of transparency on expenditure, identifying the source of funding and the source of advertising, particularly if they originate or are funded from outside the State. That would be important to ensuring transparency in this area. Another consideration is the definitions contained in the legislation. We want some alignment with existing legislation. Under the current Electoral Act, the definition of "political purposes" is broad and has posed some challenges. The commission has raised those, as have some members of civil society. The fact that this legislation would have a different definition of what constitutes a political end as opposed to a political purpose in the Electoral Act is something that could be aligned and would allow for more consistent regulation for the person who has to apply the legislation.
The commission's final suggestion relates to expenditure limits, particularly during an election or referendum. We have limits in place during elections and people who participate as a candidate in an election must disclose their election expenses. They are subject to thresholds which they must adhere to and there are offences for breaching that. There are no expenditure limits for a referendum and any third party or political party can engage in campaigning at a referendum and there is nothing relating to disclosure or expenditure limits that they must adhere to in the legislation.
I thank both witnesses for a comprehensive answer. I am sure Deputy Lawless is pleased with the positive response he received to the Bill. Ms Perreault presented ideas which are not necessarily relevant to this Bill, being outside its remit, relating to referendums, their cost and funding. Has Deputy Lawless anything further to say?
I have a question for Ms Perreault. There seems to be a bit of confusion relating to enforcement of current electoral offences. There are 30 or so offences. If I put up a poster in the morning and somebody does not feel that the notice on it adheres adequately to the current legislation, is there a section in SIPO that can investigate, police or sanction that? Does it go through the Garda and then the Director of Public Prosecutions? What is the channel? There seems to be confusion. Have there been any cases where SIPO has imposed sanctions in recent years or is there a lacuna there, as some commentators suggest?
There are several electoral Acts in place. The commission oversees the Electoral Act 1997 which largely deals with political donations and expenditure at elections. Certain aspects of the electoral legislation would be outside of the commission's remit. It has no responsibility for the content of political advertising, but we do in relation to expenditure. If someone spends money on posters, for example, they are obliged to declare that in their election expenses statement at the end of an election and then they can seek reimbursement of costs if they achieve a certain amount of the vote. The commission would not have responsibility for the content of their adverting, its placement or similar matters.
On enforcement, for the offences which fall within the Act that is within the commission's remit, it has the authority to make any inquiries or direct the production of information or documents or anything in the possession of a person which might be relevant to the commission's work. It may make inquiries and may form a view as to whether a contravention of the legislation may have occurred. The commission does not have direct prosecutorial power. It can refer any offences to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP. In practice, and at the request of the DPP, we have referred potential offences to An Garda Síochána for investigation, which in turn, may refer them to the DPP for eventual prosecution.
I thank Ms Perreault, Ms White and their colleagues accompanying them for coming before the committee and engaging with us. We have received some good information and it has been of great assistance to the committee. I hope that the Bill which is now before the Dáil will be enacted before the end of the Government as it is very worthwhile.
The committee will publish the opening statements and submissions received on its website.