The news that Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections are shutting down should be welcomed considering the endless harm they’ve caused. But don’t feel too relieved just yet. Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections are closing their doors in name only. A majority of their key players – including former CA chief executive Alexander Nix – already have a new company waiting in the wings – Emerdata Ltd.
And there’s more: Rebekah and Jennifer Mercer, daughters of US billionaire Robert Mercer, one of the creators of Cambridge Analytica, are on the board. Don’t worry, it gets worse still. They’ve filed for insolvency which means they’ll be relieved of their corporate legal responsibilities. Damian Collins, the chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, immediately raised the concern on my mind too – does this mean they can destroy all the evidence of alleged wrongdoing and then do the same again?
It’s not enough to stop one company or two, or however many iterations exist. We need laws and regulations that ensure no firm, whatever it’s called, can harvest, misuse or abuse our personal and private data.
It starts with consequential reform to the UK Electoral Commission:
· Give the Electoral Commission proper prosecutorial and deterrent power. A £20,000 is small change to campaigns when they’re spending £700,000 – it’s the cost of doing business.
· Report campaign spending in real-time, not four to six weeks after the result has been announced and impacted people’s lives. It’s incredibly difficult to reverse an election result and almost never happens. The prevention of cheating and corruption is the cure.
· End financial transfers from officially designated campaigns: it’s hard to believe that gifting sizeable amounts to other groups comes with no strings attached.
· Ban digital advertising in elections until we have proper regulations in the form of a digital bill of rights for democracy. Political adverts targeted at voters have turned what used to be a public, shared experience into a private, solitary one. This means opposition groups don’t know which ideas their opponents are using to persuade voters and can’t respond to them. It means that voters aren’t necessarily having conversations with each other. And it means the press can’t effectively interrogate claims made by any campaign group.
Without proper laws and systems in place to prevent the misuse of data and the circumvention of traditional law online, companies like Cambridge Analytica can continue to spread misinformation in elections worldwide. Recent news about Facebook’s failure to stem the spread of fake news in the Irish abortion referendum only further illustrates that this problem won’t go away with the closure of Cambridge Analytica and SCL.It’s also important to remember that such organisations wouldn’t exist in their current form without the likes of Facebook, who continue to allow data harvesters to feed off them.
Irish law, like UK law, prohibits foreign entities from donating to campaigns. But there is no regulation of political adverts on social media meaning that foreign groups, mainly American and Canadian, are targeting Irish voters with misinformation – treating the referendum as a potential triumph for anti-abortionists with no concern for the lived reality of Irish women. Foreign interference in elections is illegal – and this must include the digital space.
Irish votes are being stripped of their right to self-determination. RTE News recently became aware of a paid-for Facebook video, designed to appear as if it was an official report arguing for the Eighth Amendment (which bans abortion in almost all circumstances). Irish politicians have rightly been calling for the immediate suspension of these forms of adverts.
We cannot trust companies like Facebook to “self-regulate”. It’s time governments did their job and intervened immediately to ensure people in the UK and around the world are safe from predatory practices. The future of democracies everywhere hinge on our ability to create strong protections for digital information and to stand up for our hard-fought rights. How many elections are we going to allow to be won fraudulently? If we don’t end this now, when?
Kyle Taylor is the director of The Fair Vote Project