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UKIP fights disclosure of information about role of ‘dark’ Facebook ads in EU referendum campaign

By Dominic Ponsford

UKIP is fighting the Information Commissioner over disclosure of information about the role of ‘dark’ Facebook advertising in last year’s referendum on the UK leaving the European Union.

The Observer has reported that £4.7m was spent by pro Leave groups during last year’s EU referendum with Canada-based AggregateIQ used to harvest data about Britons on Facebook and then target them with personalised adverts. These so-called ‘dark ads’ are only visible to the person viewing them and are subject to no regulatory control.

AggregateIQ appears to be closely linked to Cambridge Analytica, the political campaigning firm funded by US billionaire Robert Mercer which helped get Donald Trump elected.

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said more than 30 organisations, including political parties, campaign groups, data companies and social media platforms had been involved in the investigation into the use of people’s personal information.

Facebook is reckoned to make more than £1bn a year out of online display advertising in the UK. Press Gazette’s Duopoly campaign has raised concerns that the dominance of Facebook and Google in UK online advertising leaves little space for news publishers.

Denham said that some of the organisations involved in her probe had “failed to be as comprehensive” as required in co-operating and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) had been forced to issue formal demands – including one to UKIP.

The party has appealed the notice to the Information Rights Tribunal, with a UKIP spokesperson claiming it had nothing to hide but was being “bullied” by the ICO.

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The inquiry is focusing on the European Union referendum campaign and Denham said she had faced difficulties in getting all the information she wanted.

“It’s a complex and far-reaching investigation, involving over 30 organisations including political parties and campaigns, data companies and social media platforms.

“Among those organisations is AggregateIQ, a Canadian-based company, used by a number of the campaigns,” she said in a blog post.

“A number of organisations have freely co-operated with us, answered our questions and engaged with the investigation.

“But, others are making it difficult. In some instances we have been unable to obtain the specific details of work that contributed to the referendum campaign and I will be using every available legal tool and working with authorities overseas to seek answers on behalf of UK citizens.

“The ICO has issued four information notices as part of the investigation including one to UKIP, who have now appealed our notice to the Information Rights Tribunal.”

A UKIP spokesperson insisted the party had co-operated with the ICO but was told that the information provided was not what the watchdog wanted and then hit with the “disproportionate” information notice which carries the threat of criminal sanctions.

“We are not hiding anything but we don’t like being bullied,” the
spokesperson said.

Denham said the investigation was examining “whether there was a
legal basis” for the organisations to use people’s information and
whether people had “a way of exercising their privacy rights”.

In a speech at a data summit, Denham indicated there were serious
ethical questions, regardless of whether or not laws had been broken.

“Whether or not we find practices that contravened the law – and this is
where I have jurisdiction – there are significant ethical questions
here.

“Ethical questions about truthfulness, fairness, respect, bias and
maintenance of public trust in our political campaigns and referendums
and perhaps even our democracy.

“Even if it’s transparent, even if it’s legal, is it the right thing to
do?”

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