The Online Harms White Paper Contents

Appendix 1

Letter from Chair to Rt Hon David Lidington MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, 17 May 2019

Dear David,

Changes to electoral law

In February, my Committee published its final report on Disinformation and ‘fake news’. The Government issued its response earlier this month, following the publication of the White Paper on Online White Harms on 8 April.

In our report, we set out why we believe that electoral law is not fit for purpose and needs to be changed to reflect changes in campaigning techniques.

We were disappointed about the response. The White Paper lacks focus on electoral interference and online political advertising. The Information Commissioner agreed, telling us in evidence on 23 April that she was also “surprised and disappointed”. The limited measures that were included - a code of practice to tackle disinformation, for instance by using fact-checking services (particularly during election periods) - do not specifically address the committee’s recommendations that all online political campaign materials should state their source and advertiser; that a category should be introduced for digital spending on campaigns; and that information about all political advertising material should be searchable in a public repository.

Your department published its response to the consultation on Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information earlier this month. While, again, not all our recommendations were addressed, we were pleased to note that the Government agrees that an imprint should be required on digital election material, whenever that material is published.

However, no timeline has been set for these changes; Jeremy Wright told us in evidence that legislation on online harms will be brought in the new session, but we cannot work on a basis of elections taking place in 2022.

Were an election or referendum to take place later this year, campaigns will be fought using electoral law that I think we can all agree is no longer fit for purpose. My Committee has catalogued the (unresolved) consequences of this during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign.

Public confidence in the integrity of our democracy is of imperative importance. As a result, I believe that the Government should introduce emergency legislation to make changed in electoral law. A standalone bill dealing with transparency in political advertising, using the measures we recommended in our report, could easily be introduced very soon.

We know what needs to be done, and we cannot risk electoral disruption during any imminent democratic event. I would appreciate an opportunity to discuss this with you at your earliest convenience.

Yours sincerely,


Published: 2 July 2019