Senator calls on business to block political adverts ahead of referendum

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins raises concerns over issues of responsibility for online content

Businesses might need to consider blocking all political adverts from their websites ahead of the Eighth Referendum, as they face being liable for any inappropriate content. However there are tools they can use to delete or block such items.

This is the view of Galway Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, who has been working on the issue of unregulated political online advertising since the end of last year. She is concerned over false and misleading adverts being displayed online in the run up to the referendum on the Eighth Amendment on May 25.

Concerns over online advertising, malicious actors, bots, and data harvesting have become part of public discourse following the Trump election victory in 2016 and, more widely, following the Cambridge Analytica/data harvesting controversy which has engulfed Facebook, and led to calls for internet regulation.

Sen Higgins has been in contact with various social media and tech companies in recent weeks regarding online adverts and responsibility. Websites such as Google and Facebook are regarded as platforms - sites which allow third parties to publish on and within them. As such they are not regarded as 'publishers'. Thus, they can claim little or no responsibility for content.

Google has informed the senator that publishers can control what ads are displayed on their site by Google, and can block ads in sensitive categories such as politics and religion. Sen Higgins said businesses concerned over inappropriate ads displayed on their website can control this using the Creative Review tool which allows publishers to review individual ads and choose whether to let them show on their pages. Adverts can also be blocked from any specific advertiser web site and inappropriate advertising can be flagged directly to Google. "If a publisher flags an inappropriate ad, it might add more weight to individual complaints," she said.

Sen Higgins said this information was important for website owners to aware of as they may be held liable for inappropriate content. This issue arose at a recent meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Communications meeting Facebook representatives, and the Data Protection Commissioner, where the "dangers of unregulated, misleading, and sometimes internationally purchased ads" were discussed.

According to Sen Higgins, the Data Protection Commissioner suggested responsibility for content would lie with the website or publisher, while Google is of a similar view, seeing the website/publisher as the ‘Data Controller” and therefore responsible or liable for any experience a viewer has when visiting the site.

"Given this context, the current lack of proper regulation in online advertising, and the sensitivity of the forthcoming referendum, publishers may perhaps wish to consider requesting the exclusion of political ads from their website for the month of May," said Sen Higgins. "This would of course not affect the inclusion of political ads in the print editions as that is appropriately regulated."

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