Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal there has been growing international concern about the impact that micro-targeting and unregulated online advertising may have on the democratic process.
Senator Higgins, who has been a leading voice on data protection issues in the Seanad, says “It is important that the forthcoming referendum does not become another case study for bad practices, we know that there are already a large volume of political advertisements and sponsored content being targeted at Irish voters, including ads from unaccountable, unidentified or international actors”.
While there are strict rules around print or broadcast advertising during an Irish election on referendum, there is an acknowledged lack of clear or appropriate regulation around online advertising.
“Regulation and legislation are clearly needed in this area to bring social media in line with the standards of broadcast and print media, however, with the referendum just weeks away, immediate action is also required,” says Senator Alice-Mary Higgins.
"I am calling on social media platforms to immediately halt sales of political ads until there is proper transparency and accountability” says Senator Higgins.
Representatives from Facebook have acknowledged the need for greater regulation and expressed regret at the abuse of social media within electoral systems but claim they are not yet able to roll out tools which would offer transparency for viewers around who has paid for or placed a political ad.
Yet as Senator Higgins points out “Facebook continue to accept new payments for new unregulated political ads targeted at the people of Ireland. Such sales should be immediately stopped while the platforms get the necessary transparency and accountability measures in place, or at the very least until after the referendum on May 25th.”
"Given that Facebook acknowledges there is a problem and claim they cannot yet fix it, the least they can do is stop digging and introducing a temporary freeze on political targeting while they get their house in order."
The call from Senator Higgins follows a similar call for a temporary suspension on online political advertising from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in the UK, who last week described political micro-targeting as “opaque and unaccountable”.
Senator Higgins also noted that individuals or companies who run ad-hosting websites or youtube channels in Ireland “could themselves take one practical action” by changing their settings and choosing not to host online political ads while concerns about lack of regulation remain.”
Notes to Editor
Statement from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in the UK:
Transparent Referendum Initiative