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Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment debate -
Thursday, 7 Nov 2019

Session 5: Future Collaboration

The fifth session of today's proceedings gives members an opportunity to discuss options for future collaboration. I asked members in advance to think about which organisations or mechanisms they would consider appropriate for working together to advance a cohesive multilateral agenda of regulation. This is our third international grand committee hearing. We have had social media companies before us. We often hear many of the same answers to our questions. Today's meeting has been very productive. We have heard expert views that have given us options for a path forward. It is clear that no international rule-making body is dealing with this issue in a coherent way. We need the rule of law to apply to social media when it comes to political interference, political advertising, online harm and fake news, but it is not there at the moment.

We will hold a press conference at 5.30 p.m. I want to open the meeting up to members before then. What is the overriding message that is coming forward? From my own point of view, I think the issue of targeted political advertising on social media has been recurring throughout all the hearings today. I will let those present think about our message for a moment. Maybe we could consider recommending a moratorium on micro-targeted political advertising until regulation is in place. I am not suggesting that there could not be political advertising online, but that the micro-targeted approach could be stalled temporarily. This is something the members might want to discuss. Perhaps we can all agree on this as an issue that could come out of today's deliberations.

There is another issue that I would like to open up to members. We might consider the taxation of social media companies to support public service broadcasting. There is real concern about journalism, factual information, factual news, combatting fake news and supporting public service media and public service broadcasting. We are looking at ways to support that. Are members in agreement on coming together on these issues before the press conference later this afternoon?

Lord Puttnam

It might be helpful if one thing could be clarified. One of the real concerns in the UK, where an election campaign is just beginning, is that the micro targeting of individuals avoids the rules and regulations regarding constituency expenditure. I do not know whether that needs more explanation. National parties can spend X amount; constituencies are restricted to £15,000 each.

If those individual voters are micro targeted, it does not count as part of the £15,000. In fact what has happened is that a coach and horses has been driven through a law that has existed for 100 years that did attempt to control electoral expenditure. It sounds like a small thing but actually it is a very big thing.

Lord Puttnam feels that the micro targeting of political advertisements is a real issue in the UK.

I agree. We have done very good work today and yesterday. It has been very informative. We set ourselves the ambitious target of answering where is the point for international collaboration. As the Chair says, there are myriad different possible points but none is immediately achievable.

To cite our experience in the referendum, which our Singaporean colleagues cited several times, this became an issue of concern and at the last minute the platforms withdrew from advertising because it was so contentious. It would be very useful if we, as a group representing several parliaments, came out with the sort of moratorium the Chair talks of because it would not just leave it to the platforms to make the decision. It would be one political voice in this space asking for that action to take place. As Lord Puttnam says, this is a fairly immediate issue in the UK. We have an election coming up in the spring and our Singaporean colleagues are on the same sort of timeline and the US presidential election is not very far away. If we could get broad agreement on such a moratorium, it would be very beneficial and it would prevent what happened in our case, when it happened by default without any political contribution. Our contribution would be useful and timely and may encourage the wider collaboration that is our overall aim. It is only one measure, it is interim and temporary, but it would not be insignificant.

Mr. Tom Packalén

It would be a problem if we ban micro-targeted advertising. There are many MPs and there is a huge difference between the US presidential election or elections in some small countries because the budgets are totally different. There is a big difference if somebody has a budget of €10,000 or €20,000 because with these kinds of resources they do not have enough resources to use TV or other media and need to be careful where they put their money. If we ban this, we could also do a lot of harm.

Mr. David Cicilline

There was a lot of testimony in this set of panels about the dangers of micro targeting but particularly in the dissemination of false information. It seems to me the harm is much less serious in micro targeting if it is accurate. The fact that it is one on one is not perfect because there is not that public discourse that is the business, but it is really egregious and harmful when it is false and is micro targeted because there is no public square. It would be strange for us to leave here and not say something about this publicly articulated policy of Facebook that says it will sell completely false advertisements for anyone who wants them and in whatever quantity they want. The really pernicious harm is the false declaration combined with the micro targeting. Maybe we can speak about the two together.

Yes, in respect of falsehoods or where there is misinformation, that is very good and very positive.

Mr. Milton Dick

We would support what the Congressman is saying. I do not have a problem if micro targeting happens and is about a factual issue or a local campaign or particularly in developing countries. It is when it deals with falsehoods or deliberately misleading information, and we have heard enough evidence today from the witnesses to say that is growing not only here in Europe but around the world. It would be important for us to act on the evidence we have been presented with today.

Lord Puttnam

If we are going to go down that route, and I am fine with that, what about anonymity and the fact that these advertisements are not tagged? We do not know who they have come from or what party they purport to be supporting, believe it or not. They can actually be not only malicious but also anonymous. Do we have a view on that?

Mr. David Cicilline

We have mentioned disclosure and transparency in the declaration. It states:

All of our signatories leave here today having agreed to support or introduce legislation in their own parliaments to require disclosure and transparency of online political advertising while at the same time respecting free speech. There is an understanding that free speech also requires transparency of source and adherence to national laws.

We could refer to that.

Does that cover the point for Lord Puttnam?

Lord Puttnam

Yes I just hope that people will understand what we mean by transparent.

I drafted that part of the principles. The thinking behind it is to include this ticker. How we do it is immaterial but it is to include a transparency or disclosure notice such that all of these political advertisements have a ticker tape running beside or under them where the user can click to see who brought it to them, who sponsored it, and who funded it. That gets around many of the issues we have been talking about. It promotes transparency in the political advertising but also in terms of micro targeting and when it is and is not permissible. It is always permissible if everybody else can see it. It is the dark hands that are hidden away behind micro targeting to see one particular micro sector of which nobody else has visibility. If there is transparency on it and disclosure behind that, and if we mandate that it must be available through a library or regular access, that takes away the dark web and dark advertising. I hope that paragraph summarises that.

Dr. Janil Puthucheary

I support the idea that we have this moratorium because in Singapore our statute against online falsehoods came into effect on 1 October and everything we have discussed in the past five minutes is entirely coherent with the position we have taken. We would be more than happy to support the suggestion. Under our legislative framework we have targeted the issue of falsity and as a result have also put into place codes of practice around advertising transparency and political advertising transparency. The legislation that came into force in Singapore on 1 October is entirely coherent and consistent with what has just been described around a moratorium on a false politically motivated micro-targeted advertising.

Mr. David Cicilline

That makes me think of one question that we might be asked in this context. If we start off by saying disclosure is an important value in terms of knowing where the advertisement came from, who paid for it, that is right. If we say micro targeting, when coupled with false or erroneous misleading information, is particularly pernicious, the next question people will ask is whether, if it is not micro-targeted, we are okay with false political advertisements broadly being placed on these platforms on the Internet. That would be a fair question for a reporter to ask. My view of that would be no, we should not allow it. In fairness, however, people should be comfortable with that because it is the next obvious question. Micro targeting is very dangerous when it is false and everyone agrees that should not be permitted, but the next question is whether we support a ban on false political advertising, even if it is of a high standard but is demonstrably false and the platform is put on notice of it. That is the next obvious question, which I would support if I were asked that, but I would not just raise it with my colleagues here.

Dr. Janil Puthucheary

I would support that as well.

I do not want to complicate things by throwing up questions but there is a very serious question, namely, what is political advertising. Whether it is a company such as Twitter, which takes a certain stance and has to answer that question, or whether someone takes a different view, I do not think we were able to answer that here. Some of the various collaborative measures we have seen and that have been presented to us have an urgent task in managing that. I do not think, however, we can definitively give an answer on that here this evening but it is right for us to call for the sort of moratorium, with the caveats we have presented, recognising that some of the details have to be worked out.

Does anyone have anything to add on the themes or issues that have arisen?

Ms Nino Goguadze

I thank the committee for inviting me. It is the first committee meeting I have attended and it has been very interesting to look at the issues involved from the perspective of different countries. Georgia applies very high standards of freedom of expression and freedom of speech, although I would say we apply more American, rather than European, standards. Stakeholders in Georgia are very reluctant to regulate freedom of expression in this or that way, or the Internet and so on. This discussion has given me some ideas to take back home to discuss with my colleagues and political party representatives. It is a unique format. We have to work together to deal with the challenges all of our societies are facing.

On another output from the committee, it is important that when we leave here today we have some framework agreed among us for further follow-up actions. We had a discussion earlier with some of the panellists about this, but I am not sure if we reached any definitive conclusion. In the absence of an external framework, the grand committee retains the mantle and it falls on us as parliamentarians working collectively. I assume there will be another session, perhaps in a few months' time, wherever it takes place, but it would be useful if we could agree among ourselves to keep up the momentum and activity level. What is measured is managed and done. We have the principles, as part of which we are all making certain commitments. If we can begin to trace and track them in our own systems and our own way and then report back at the next session such that we are taking away some actions and can begin to translate words into doing, that will be a very positive outcome from this summit in the absence of an alternative international mechanism. I do not see anything else jumping out from our deliberations. We retain the mantle until such time as there is something preferable.

We have been chatting to each other and the US Congressman has brought a huge bank of wisdom and work in this area. For our next meeting, it would be perfect if the Houses of Congress were able to host us. The meeting would have to build on the three we have held to date. Given the timeline of our meetings to date, it would be hugely positive if the Houses of Congress were able to facilitate the holding of a further follow-up meeting.

Mr. David Cicilline

I appreciate the suggestion and would be very proud to host a meeting of the grand committee in Washington. Obviously, I will first have to check with a number of individuals as we have very specific rules for how House proceedings can be used in dealing with outside organisations. I am, however, flattered by the suggestion and, obviously, the Congress of the United States considers to be this very important work. I am happy to follow up on the suggestion made and explain that my colleagues at this meeting have urged that the United States be the location of the next meeting. I will do all I can to make it happen.

We would be delighted if it could be held in the United States.

On the taxation of social media company profits to support public service broadcasting, again, this is an issue for members on which to agree, although how it would be worked out would be for others to decide. The aim is to support public service broadcasting to ensure we will have access to reputable, quality journalism and that we are working towards combating fake news.

Lord Puttnam

In the UK context, a word like "taxation" does not go down well, but if we were to use the word "levy", people would not be quite as neurotic.

It would be a levy on social media companies, not citizens.

Lord Puttnam

It would be a levy on the social media companies' revenues.

Mr. Tom Packalén

If we are to have the taxation of social media companies, at the same time national broadcast companies should do fact checking in order that they could give something back.

They would be giving back in the sense that we would be investing in quality journalism in public service broadcasting. We have heard at these hearings that they need to be supported. In their journalism and reporting they would be fact checking.

Mr. David Cicilline

One issue of concern in the United States is the Government funding what we would consider to be good journalism; there would there would be a lot of reaction. One of the most important responsibilities of good journalists is holding the government to account and exposing misconduct in government. Therefore, the notion of taxing a private entity for the purpose of generating revenue for the government to provide training or invest in good journalism would cause a lot of anxiety for historical reasons, but that is not to say public service announcements would not be fine. However, the question of whether we would actually want the government-----

Could it be a regulator? Here, for example, we have the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. It is OFCOM in the United Kingdom. Again, every country would have its own independent regulator.

Mr. Milton Dick

It would be very difficult. It is a great concept for a noble cause, but, in practical terms, I am not sure how it would work from country to country. I do not think I would be able to agree wholeheartedly with its implementation in the light of what the Congressman has said.

That is okay. These are things at which we can look and explore in the future. It is about protecting journalism and dealing with fake news and how it happens. We do not have to decide on the issue today.

Mr. David Cicilline

We can all agree that we have to figure out how to promote and incentivise good, reputable, trustworthy journalism without necessarily saying-----

Mr. Milton Dick

Without linking it with taxation.

Or a levy.

Lord Puttnam

The Chairman's word "explore" covers it.


I thank Gina Long and all of the team who have worked so hard in the past few months on the co-ordination of this event. It was a big event for the Oireachtas. It is a really proud moment for us to host all of you here in Ireland. It has been wonderful. Your contributions have been very worthwhile and the meeting has been very informative. I believe we have some solutions and while there is an awful lot of work to get through and there is no one silver bullet, this has been a very worthwhile exercise.

I thank my two colleagues, Deputy James Lawless who is Vice Chairman of the committee and Deputy Eamon Ryan, who have worked closely with me, Ms Long and her team in co-ordinating this event in the past few months and bringing really good delegates here, as well as committee members. It has been incredible.

I thank the ushers and all of the team in Leinster House who have been working so hard behind the scenes, in particular Ms Cáit Hayes and her team. I am sorry; I should not name names because once I start to do so, I will leave somebody out. Nonetheless, there has been a huge team effort within Leinster House and we thank all those involved.

We will hold a press conference at 5.30 p.m. in committee room 2 and have dinner at 7.30 p.m. in the Members' dining room.

Dr. Janil Puthucheary

It behoves us to thank you, Chairman, for your able leadership of the committee. We thank you for taking us through what has been a very productive day.

It was my pleasure. Thank you very much.

The joint committee adjourned at 5 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 November 2019.