Speaking today, Senator Higgins said “Facebook and Google’s decisions come in the context of increasing international concern around the almost entirely unregulated and often unaccountable sphere of online political advertising. The Institute of Advertising Practitioners in the UK had previously called for a similar suspension of this kind of advertising. Concerns have been expressed in advance of Mexican and Swedish elections and both platforms have themselves acknowledged the problem and promised new transparency tools in time for the United States Mid-Term Elections. When we asked for such tools here we were told they were not yet technically ready in time for this referendum. In that context the only options were for platforms to continue selling unregulated ads or cease till safeguards were in place. I believe that legislation, such as that proposed by James Lawless, should provide such safeguards.”
The Senator also noted that “This decision will apply to all sides in the referendum, just as Twitter’s long-standing policy of not selling ads in this area already applies to all sides. Every group campaigning on the referendum will be affected by this announcement and both sides had openly planned to make use of online advertising - but all that advertising would have been unregulated. There is nothing available to one side that is not equally available to the other and it is important to note that democratic debate will continue on an equal basis on air, in print, on the doorsteps and also online - subject to accountability and regulation such as that offered by the Press Council, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland or the Standards in Public Office Commission. We need similar accountability and regulation in online advertising and ultimately, we need to look at an Electoral Commission to deal with all these issues.”
Deputy Lawless added, “These measures are welcome but are by definition, temporary and only serve as another reminder that legislation is needed and needed soon. The Social Media Transparency Bill which I published last December which will regulate online political advertising needs to continue its passage through the Dáil as soon as possible. The government has had its head in the sand for too long on these issues and needs to urgently update the electoral acts for the modern age. My Bill is before committee with the support of all opposition parties and is an obvious way forward if the government will now come on board. It should not be left up to individual platforms to arbitrate on Ireland's electoral space and whilst a self-imposed moratorium is now in place for the referendum, there will be plenty more votes coming our way over the next twelve months. We can act now and lead from the front or pay the price afterwards when our hard won democracy is subverted".
“Although coming from different places in terms of politics and the issue under debate in this referendum, myself and Senator Higgins share a concern for transparency and democracy and call on all parties and groups to get behind the needed legislation. The time for talking is well past, now is the time for action.”