Tuesday, 8 May 2018
Standards in Public Office Commission
Senator Warfield, we are waiting on you. There is a presumption that everything goes to plan. Those who sit in their offices think we will wait for the next person. We have already been delayed by a few minutes. It is not your fault, but it is safer for those who have tabled Commencement matters to be here. In my time, I was here for the start.
I was taking my lead from the title on the television when I was in the anteroom. I welcome the Minister to the House. As he will be aware, we are in the full swing of a referendum campaign. This referendum in particular has taken a turn that is unprecedented.
The use of social media has been a growing campaigning platform for the past ten years or so. Unlike other platforms, it has a distinct ability to be financed and co-ordinated online from foreign sources. This was highlighted by potential Russian influence in the US presidential elections and subversive alt-right campaigns during the Brexit referendum.
We are only two weeks into the referendum, yet extensive investigative journalism has shown that the use of websites and paid advertising from the "No" campaign has been used at a cost of six figures per day. Some of the videos are presenting themselves as being RTÉ news bulletins and other websites appearing to be fact-based and objective have been targeted at people's online profiles.
Undecided8.orgpurported to be unbiased and targeted Facebook users with what seemed to be an unending war chest. It is linked to the Protect the 8th campaign and it has been sourced, run and funded by a US PR firm linked to Cambridge Analytica. Undecided8.orgused Facebook and Google trackers with the intention of helping with future retargeting, including of people who had clicked on the advertisements before. The users' data is then vulnerable for future guerilla targeting, as are users of a similar demographic. Undecided8.orghas been shut down thanks to stellar investigation work by technology journalist Gavin Sheridan.
However, this is only the start. Numerous Facebook pages with few followers have suddenly poured resources into paid advertising targeting voters. These advertisements are dishonest and subversive, and are intended to scaremonger voters who seek to establish their own views. Referendums have always been subject to differences of opinion and interpretations of proposals. However, these advertisements are blatantly ignorant of the facts and seek to undermine our democracy. While I believe the State should never seek to censor campaigns that aim to present their views to the voting public, it also has a responsibility when the voting public has been targeted by a foreign source seeking to deceive undecided voters with resources that eclipse those of the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, and the Referendum Commission and completely undermine their work.
In an unprecedented move, Facebook has written to the Government and SIPO on the topic, the first time Facebook has reached out to any state government in regard to fake news during a public vote. As of the past hour, Facebook has announced that it is suspending all referendum based adverts from sources outside the State. This is a most welcome move and it should act as a call to action for Google and, more important, the State.
We are now in a space where a private entity has done more to uphold democracy in the State than the State itself. We are also failing to deal with the issue of hundreds of thousands of euro per day from foreign sources being spent by a campaign. We are failing to uphold any notion of fear and even playing fields. We are failing to deliver any resources which allow SIPO to effectively investigate whether campaigns receive donations from international sources and are failing to update our electoral legislation to deal with online campaigning as a platform.
I welcome that the Government has agreed to progress the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill. Sinn Féin would amend the Bill and its objectives are timely. It will make the sources of fake news transparent, but we still do not have regulation from a State level of what comes after. SIPO needs effective resources and powers here and now. We are 17 days away from a public vote, and all of the Government responses seem to be after the fact.Like the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election, I fear we will look back on the referendum in late May and say it was influenced by false reports online, and we will be left to deal with the consequences of that.
I thank Senator Warfield. I must apologise for the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, who is unable to attend but he has asked me to respond on his behalf.
Senator Warfield is familiar with the 1997 Electoral Act, which provides the framework for dealing with political donations and sets out a wide range of related matters on the funding of political parties; the reimbursement of election expenses; the establishment of election expenditure limits; the disclosure of election expenditure; the setting of limits on permissible donations; the prohibition of certain donations; the disclosure of donations; and the registration of third parties who accept donations given for political purposes which exceed €100.
The Act also provides for the independent supervision of the donations regime by the Standards in Public Office Commission. In broad terms, where a political donation in excess of €100 is received by an election candidate, an account in a financial institution must be opened in the State. In addition, there are a number of reporting requirements that need to be met in regard to the holding of such an account, for example, financial statements itemising all transactions in the account are required to be produced annually. While SIPO does not disclose the contents of political donations accounts unless ordered to do so by a court, donation statements made by election candidates, Members of the Oireachtas, Members of the European Parliament or political parties are, on the other hand, made publicly available. A donation statement is required when a political donation exceeding an aggregate of €600 is received from a donor.
Furthermore, under the Act an election candidate, a Member of the Oireachtas, a Member of the European Parliament, a political party or a third party who accepts donations for political purposes may not accept a range of donations, including a donation, of whatever value, from an individual other than an Irish citizen who resides outside the island of Ireland or a donation from a body corporate or unincorporated body of persons which does not keep an office in the island of Ireland from which one or more of its principal activities is directed. Clearly, foreign donations of any amount are prohibited under the Act and where such donations have been made, it is incumbent upon the recipient to either return the donation to the donor or to remit it to SIPO. In addition, the recipients of prohibited donations must comply with a direction given by SIPO in the matter. Failure to do so is an offence under the Act. The Standards in Public Office Commission may make such inquiries as it considers appropriate and may require any person, political party or third party to furnish any such information as it considers appropriate for the purpose of exercising its duties under the Act.
For the avoidance of doubt, the principal purpose of the Act is to provide for openness and transparency with regard to political funding at elections and at referenda. The Act's provisions relate to persons, political parties and third parties who accept donations for political purposes.
The Senator is concerned that under the current law persons or organisations who do not accept political donations do not fall within scope of the Act and are not prohibited from using their resources in support of promoting a particular outcome at an election or a referendum. Legislating to change that would require considerable consideration by the Oireachtas before it would be changed. However, the Senator is raising an issue of systematic operations that may be targeting elections that have nothing to do with any of those contestants in the election. That is an issue we need to consider as an Oireachtas in terms of how it is appropriate that that sort of activity should be regulated but as I said, the Standards in Public Office Commission is empowered to pursue anyone who accepts donations from overseas as they would be breaking the law.
I thank the Minister. I understand about political donations. Many of us here have been through two election campaigns. Does the Minister welcome today's announcement by Facebook? Would the Government encourage Google and, by extension, YouTube to do the same? The Minister mentioned the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. Could SIPO not be empowered with finance to take on its role under legislation in this campaign? Are conversations being had at Cabinet level about the regulation of this entire area?
While I am not the line Minister, everyone recognises that in recent times we have seen a level of activity from forces outside of countries which are seeking to influence the results of elections. It provides a challenge to us as to how a political system should manage that. We, of course, value freedom of expression and the right of people to make their views known. However, there are clearly levels of activity that would be a cause of concern. It would appear that Facebook also feels that the level of activity is a cause of concern to it.
Legislation, however, cannot be made on the hoof. This is an area in which the Minister cannot assume powers which the Oireachtas has not given him. We would need to think carefully about the implications of seeking to regulate this area because it goes to the heart of people's right to express themselves. We need to think long, hard and carefully as to how we would address this issue. There is no doubt that as one scans the world stage, one sees activities, whether they be bots or other operations, which are a cause of concern to anyone who wants to see citizens make a discerning decision based on objective and fair information being presented to them, as well as people having the chance to campaign for or against a proposition in a fair way.
While I cannot speak for the Minister, I recognise there is an issue to which the Oireachtas will need to return if it is not regulated at European level, as this is not just an Irish issue.