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Britain's electoral law not fit for purpose, says regulator

LONDON (Reuters) - Laws governing the upcoming British election are not fit for purpose and steps by Facebook and Google to increase transparency around digital adverts are not a substitute for reform, the Electoral Commission said.

FILE PHOTO: A polling station sign is pictured in Biggin Hill, Britain May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo

The regulator has called for more powers to ensure online campaign material is clearly labeled, prohibit spending by foreign organizations and increase the amount it can levy as a maximum fine to those who break the rules.

But promised legislation has not materialized ahead of the Dec. 12 election.

“We think electoral law needs to be reformed. That hasn’t happened, so we are continuing to run this election with laws that aren’t fit for purpose,” Louise Edwards, director of regulation at the Electoral Commission, told Reuters.

“There are definitely going to be things that we would rather see done differently, better and more transparently for the voter that won’t be, because the law hasn’t been updated.”

In May the government pledged to safeguard elections through new legislation, including a requirement for a digital imprint on election material. But the government’s proposals have yet to become law.

Pressure on social media platforms over their handling of political advertising is mounting ahead of the U.S. presidential election in 2020, and Facebook has stood by its policy to allow political ads, even as rival Twitter has banned them.

To improve transparency, Facebook and Google have introduced databases which allow users to see who has spent on which political adverts. However, the Electoral Commission doesn’t believe that such steps remove the need for legal reform.

“We should have legislation in place, and not rely on individual company policies, because those individual company policies are not the same of what the legal definition (of political advertising) is,” Edwards said.

As an example, anti-Brexit campaign group Best for Britain has placed adverts on Google for a tactical voting website which advises who people should vote for to keep out their local Conservative candidate.

This is considered political advertising under British law and appears in Facebook’s ad library, but Google has not included it in its database, as it does not promote the election of one specific candidate or party.

“Our focus for the upcoming election is transparency to show voters who is purchasing election ads about candidates and political parties,” a Google spokesman said.

“We remain committed to different approaches to improve transparency around ads, including so-called issue ads, and will have more to share in the future.”

Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Giles Elgood