I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I propose to share my time with Deputies Marc MacSharry, Shane Cassells and Jack Chambers. I will set out the purpose and context of the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017, go through the sections and deal with the main objectives of same. We are aware that we live in an age when online platforms are increasingly influential in political debates and in shaping public opinion. This is to be welcomed and is a progressive and positive step. There are opportunities for citizen engagement, further debate and a more accessible medium so it is very much a welcome development. However, it also poses threats and challenges to our democracy and the integrity of that debate at times.
The debate today comes on a day when the UK equivalent of the Standards in Public Office Commission published a report which, among other things, called for greater regulatory powers to control social media platforms and certainly to engage in political debate on those platforms. The debate comes at a time when we have seen congressional hearings and the Mueller probe in the US find that up to 126 million false Facebook accounts were involved in influencing public opinion during the US presidential election. It also comes at a time when we believe the Brexit debate was similarly shaped by similar malevolent actors and when we are probably gearing up for another referendum in this jurisdiction possibly in the next six months. Of course, there will be more referenda and elections to come in the months and years ahead.
While the online space has many benefits, authentication and identification are difficult. There is an opportunity for more advanced actors to game the system in the technological space and to pretend to be other than who they are, operate multiple fake accounts or run sponsored advertising, which is the main interest of this Bill. Sponsored advertising covers paid advertising intended towards a political purpose and the political purpose is defined in the Bill as seeking to promote the popularity of a candidate for office of a political party or to influence the outcome of a vote before this Oireachtas, industrial dispute or referendum. It is quite a particular definition.
In respect of those who seek to place money on the table to influence our electoral outcomes, the Bill proposes that there must be a transparency requirement that they are who they say they are so it essentially brings honesty to the debate. Similar to lobbying Acts and provisions relating to disclosure and transparency in the electoral Acts and standards in public office legislation, this Bill should be seen as a transparency initiative in the same vein. I would say that this should be seen as the 21st century equivalent of the electoral Acts. I did not know that our electoral Acts contained 22 electoral offences until I started researching this Bill. I doubt many practising politicians have ever fallen foul of them - certainly not intentionally or knowingly - but they remain on the Statute Book. However, they are really a relic of a bygone age as they date from 1992 and beyond. Some of them are still relevant, such as the restrictions on print materials and posters, which must carry a ticker tape notification as to who published or sponsored them. This information is already on posters and election leaflets at election time.
The proposal is that the same means be provided in respect of online advertising so if someone engages in a sponsored promotion online and puts money online for the purpose of influencing an electoral or political outcome, they would have to state who they are by means of what is called a transparency notice. A transparency notice is proposed as a notice somewhere in the advertisement or, in the case of social media platforms, within the system where someone can click on a link or button to display a notice that would say who the person is. It would be an offence under the legislation to give false information to the advertising portal at the time of registration in the same way as it is already an offence to give false returns to the Standards in Public Office Commission.
There has been evidence in the past of interference or certainly interest in our election campaigns from external sources. I am sure many of us remember when UKIP placed 100,000 or possibly one million leaflets through doors during the Lisbon treaty referendum campaign. I remember the Ancient Order of Hibernians took out a full-page advertisement in the Sunday Independent prior to the vote on the Good Friday Agreement encouraging us all to vote against it. These are just two examples that spring to mind at a time when it was far more difficult to interfere in the process because someone had to commission one million leaflets and put them through every door or take out an advertisement in the Sunday newspapers. Now that someone can do the same thing at the click of a switch on Facebook or other online portal, it is all the more important that we update our laws and ensure that they are still relevant for the digital age and that the electoral Acts, which have been there since the early 1990s and before the Internet, broadband and social media era, are updated to reflect the modern tools available to us. The growth of political advertising in itself is a positive step and this Bill has no provision against it. Indeed, it encourages it. It is seen as positive and progressive. However, it imposes a transparency requirement that those who advertise are who they say they are.
Most social media platforms, at which this Bill is particularly aimed, already engage in these developments anyway. I know that in Canada, Facebook is beta testing the same type of transparency notices I mentioned. I met representatives from Facebook at its Irish office earlier this week. Google and Twitter are similarly inclined. They are all very aware of this problem and have been dealing with it since the US presidential election, the Brexit referendum and the French presidential election and in Germany recently. There have been issues in Hungary, Norway and Turkey so the social media giants have been battling this phenomenon on multiple electoral platforms and, in many cases, are updating their systems to reflect this and apply this integrity, transparency and robustness to the online debate.
We have to choose, as a jurisdiction, whether to allow them to dictate the terms and wait and play catch-up or whether we will have some role in shaping the form it will take by expressing our views as a legislature on how electoral law should be managed online.
The content of any materials advertised is completely immaterial. The legislation is ideologically and content neutral. What somebody says has no bearing. How he or she says it and the fact he or she is paying to say it is only relevant if a person does not disclose his or her identity. It is about bringing honesty to the debate. There are low-tech solutions for scenarios in which a social media provider is not in the loop, whether it is a local website or a national new website. It is not that difficult for a graphic designer to put a tick at the bottom of an ad saying who the sponsor or publisher is in the same way posters and leaflets already do. There is often great ingenuity shown by designers at election time in incorporating it into the ad. I am sure we can do it again.
The next part of the Bill is on a slightly different matter and addresses concerns that have been raised in the public domain and the media about what appears to be a pet project of the Taoiseach. That is the strategic communications unit which was announced at the time of his arrival into office. There was widespread concern and apprehension that €5 million of public money was put aside for what is regarded in many quarters as a very slick and well-oiled public relations machine. It appears from the newspaper pull-outs and multiple online ads on Merrionstreet.ie about different initiatives that it is a uniquely good news service. Bad news does not seem to make the cut. I submitted a parliamentary question on the matter to the Taoiseach last week and, funnily enough, I only received the response about an hour ago which does not explain the criteria for how those initiatives are selected. The good news engine seems to power on with €5 million in public money. There is a provision in this Bill that would prohibit the use of public money for political purposes, using the definition of political purposes contained within the Bill. The Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach, Mr. Martin Fraser, is reported in the newspapers as having expressed concerns about the strategic communications unit. He warned officials within it to maintain the independence and political impartiality of the Civil Service and that the core values of neutrality and impartiality were to be respected. I understand he issued instructions in that regard. Mr. Fraser has done the State some service.
This Bill will address that issue. It is an opportunity for the strategic communications unit to set the record straight. We can put it behind us and welcome and embrace the Bill. If it is of a non-political nature as is suggested then this provision merely clarifies that and moves ahead with it. It is also worth noting the McKenna judgments on the European referenda of the 1990s and the McCrystal judgment of 2012. In 2012, Mr. McCrystal challenged expenditure on the Children's referendum. It was found that the Government, of which many members are still in place, mis-spent €1.1 million of taxpayers' money advocating a particular side in the referendum. That was €1.1 million and with €5 million on the table, the risk is much greater. It would be better to be safe than sorry. Hopefully nobody is afraid of transparency.
Section 6 of the Bill deals with people with multiple fake accounts and would make it an offence to misinform or mislead the general public malevolently by running 25 or more fake accounts in a deliberate and systematic manner managed by software in such a way as to present as 25 individual accounts and deliberately manipulated by an online user. The offences, in line with existing Electoral Acts, come within the framework of the gardaí and the DPP.
There have been suggestions that SIPO could play a role. I am very open to that and I am open to any suggestions that come out of the Second Stage debate. If the Bill progresses, which I hope it does, because there is support in the Chamber, issues can be thrashed out on Committee Stage. I have never seen a Bill go through without multiple amendments.
I will yield to my colleague, Deputy Marc MacSharry.