Warning that foreign ads 'could influence referendum on Eighth Amendment'

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon says it is possible foreign organisations could target voters in the upcoming abortion referendum using online advertising.

Concern was raised about the potential impact of online advertising on the upcoming abortion referendum by a number of politicians - writes independent.ie

Senator Michael McDowell sought confirmation there is nothing in data protection law that can stop a foreign organisation from running online ads targeting voters in the forthcoming referendum.

The example he gave was "a pro-choice or pro-life movement in Northern Ireland putting €1m worth of selective advertising into the internet".

Ms Dixon said she couldn't speak as to what electoral laws would apply, but said: "In relation to targeting online, yes, such an entity could purchase advertising with Facebook".

She made the remarks at the Oireachtas Communications Committee, where a senior Facebook executive also apologised for the tech company's involvement in the Cambridge Analytica controversy.

Questions have been raised about whether data was used to target voters in the US presidential election following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Data held by Facebook on as many as 87 million of its users may have been improperly shared by Cambridge Analytica, which gathered it through an online application on the social media site.

But Ms Dixon said the Cambrdige Analytica issue brought into focus the question of whether "big data" analytics combined with "mirco-targeting" capabilities on social media are being used to influence electoral outcomes.

She said a core concern is that the autonomy of individuals is potentially jeopardised.

Their ability to make choices may be dictated by the use of their information in a way they don't know about, haven't been told about, or don't understand.

Ms Dixon said concern about the manipulation of voters through such activities remain "largely theoretical at this stage" and there is no hard evidence of such activity having a tangible impact on the outcome of elections.

She also said the use of micro-targeting is thought to be more difficult in Europe in part because of EU data protection laws.

Facebook's vice-president Joel Kaplan told TDs and senators that the company was "deeply sorry" for the "violation of trust" that occurred in the recent controversy over Cambridge Analytica.

Mr Kaplan said Facebook has set up a "task-force" ahead of the upcoming abortion referendum here and that artificial intelligence will be used to detect fake accounts and remove them.

Facebook is also extending a pilot-programme to Ireland called the "view ads tool" that will allow users to see all of the ads a particular organisation is targeting at users. This will be introduced next Wednesday.

Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley and People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith said they believed it should be brought in immediately.

Mr Stanley said there is concern at the potential "manipulation" of the referendum.

Mr Kaplan said he understands the "frustration and the desire that the tool should be out as quickly as possible... These things do take time to develop and... to implement."


Separately, Ms Dixon was also asked about the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is to be implemented here next month.

People Before Profit TD Ms Smith asked if, as well as offering more protection to children online, it will cover other vulnerable internet users like older people.

Ms Dixon said that under GDPR, internet users wouldn't have to "go searching" for what privacy settings should be switched on and off on a website.

She said the law requires "privacy by design" and users "should be able to anticipate there's a level of default protection when they arrive on a platform".

She said there was a requirement on online service providers to show they are giving children the additional protection they merit. There will be "plain language" notices for children.

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