Three reasons why online political advertising remains largely unregulated in the UK


Junyan Zhu and Kate Dommett ask whether attempts to regulate online political ads have been hampered by particular characteristics of digital technology or by broader political factors. Presenting new interview data, they identify three obstacles: political reluctance, logistical challenges, and conflicting policy proposals.

Online political advertising has become a familiar phenomenon in recent years. This stems from public concerns about data privacy, transparency, misinformation and the role of big tech in the democratic process. In response to these concerns, the European Commission recently published a proposal aimed at improving the transparency of online political advertising practices.

While the regulation of online political advertising in the UK has been advocated by civil society groups and government bodies – including the Electoral Commission, the Center for Data Ethics and the Department of Digital, culture, media and sports – to date, the government has not proposed substantial reform. Indeed, the proposals related only to the creation of a digital footprint scheme in the Elections Bill which aimed to help voters understand who created and paid for specific advertisements.

So the question remains: what has impeded the progress of regulatory action in the UK? Is it true that decision makers face technological challenges? Is it political barriers that hinder reform? Or a combination of both factors?

To answer this question, we interviewed 23 professionals from UK regulators, government departments, the European Commission, civil society groups, advertising trade associations, academic institutes and think tanks. Our analysis showed unanimous agreement that online political advertising should be regulated and a widely held belief that the current lack of regulation was problematic. For example, the misuse of digital techniques in online advertising was seen by one interviewee as posing “a real risk to real democracy”. By asking our respondents to reflect on their experiences of regulatory debate, our research identified three major barriers to regulation: political reluctance, logistical challenges, and conflicting policy proposals.

First, we saw reluctance and a lack of action from existing politicians and regulators, although some spoke out in support of the reform. Obviously, introducing change has never been a top priority in any electoral reform program. There seems to be a lack of will among politicians to take action on this. There was also little political incentive for regulators to tackle this scheme, with the Advertising Standards Authority explaining that “the independence of the system could be undermined by decisions for or against political parties”. Going forward, the regulation of online political advertising will have to overcome challenges related to collective action issues and the short-term self-interest of political actors.

Second, we have identified a number of logistical challenges that have impeded regulatory progress. One of the most important is how to define “online political ads”. This task may seem easy at first glance, but what counts as political advertising is far from obvious. At this time, we do not have a clear definition or scope of surveillance. As one of our interviewees noted, “if they are going to regulate political advertising, they have to define it”. Another major challenge comes from the characteristics of the online sphere. Its speed and scale make it very difficult for regulatory efforts to track the amount of content on various platforms in real time. Our analysis suggests that it is essential for politicians and regulators to gain a thorough understanding of how online techniques and platforms work. And it will be a positive step towards changes with platform companies.

Third, we identified conflicting policy proposals that thwarted regulatory efforts. We discerned two very different proposals among our interlocutors regarding the specific form of regulation needed. There was no consensus on whether regulatory reform should prioritize advancing measures of greater transparency (e.g., targeting information, finance, sponsorship) or adopting content moderation (e.g. regulating misleading claims). We found notable disagreements about the importance of the first approach and the viability of the second approach. This suggests that despite the call for regulation, there is no clear vision of what exactly should be done to regulate online political advertising. The absence of a concrete plan with broad external support makes it even more difficult to pressure political parties and politicians to act on this issue.

Together, our research reveals the existence of technological and political barriers in the regulation of online political advertising. We argue that digital technologies have brought additional challenges for regulation, but the lack of progress is also caused by political factors. We hope this information will inform current debates about the regulation of online political advertising.


Note: the above is based on the authors published work in Politics and the Internet.

about the authors

Junyan Zhu is a research associate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield.

Kate Dommett is a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield.

picture by Aman Pal on Unsplash.

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