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Cambridge Analytica furore sparks renewed calls for Honest Ads Act

Shadow UK digital minister Liam Byrne, the Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, has sparked calls for a new UK version of the Honest Ads Act proposed in the US Congress, and is tabling this as an amendment to the UK’s data protection bill this week.

Writing in this morning’s Guardian online, Byrne also takes swipe at Facebook, criticising it for being opaque and unwilling to track down problematic accounts ‘despite making nearly $4bn a quarter in profit’.

Byrne pointedly takes Silicon Valley’s social media giants to task for enjoying a ‘legal privilege’ that lets them operate as platforms and not publishers. According to Byrne, this means that Twitter, YouTube and Facebook can avoid liabilities that other publishers face if they carry hate speech or similar.

Clearly dissatisfied with progress made by The Advertising Standards Authority, an organisation he criticises as being ‘reluctant to regulate political advertising’ Byrne argues that the ASA is weakened by its ability to ban broadcast political adverts but not those emanating from targeted social media campaigns.

Byrne then sets about outlining what Labour would do if elected including giving the Electoral Commission powers to serve a targeted disclosure notice on anyone suspected of trying to influence an election. Byrne likens it to a British version of the American idea for an Honest Ads Act, ‘requiring disclosure of who is spending what online, in pursuit of the basic right of voters to be fully informed’.

Whether this will work in practice is debatable. With 300 million photos uploaded to Facebook every day, the vast data required to be sifted through is an enormous challenge in itself. It’s also debatable how cooperative and forthcoming the social media giants will be if Labour are in a position to enact the legislation. As Byrne himself notes, ‘we simply do not know the size of (Facebook’s) impact. Why not? Because they won’t tell us.’ Significantly, he doesn’t tell us how the proposed legislation will address this and bring California’s tech giants into line.

It’s also interesting to note that the author Liam Byrne MP voted for The Digital Economy Act in 2010, a legislative paper that provided immense leeway on the harvesting of personal data and included very few of the protections campaigners requested at the time. As the BBC noted in 2011, the Act has always been controversial and ‘was rushed through parliament in the wash-up at the end of its administration’. Let’s hope Byrne’s current initiative isn’t similarly misconceived.

Further reading:

Guardian: Facebook and Cambridge Analytica face mounting pressure over data scandal

Telegraph: ‘Wild West’ era for technology firms like Facebook and Google is over, minister declares

Huffington Post: Explained: Who Is Cambridge Analytica And What Is It Accused Of Doing