To prevent our democracy from being hacked, we need to be transparent and accountable

In light of the ACCC's Digital Platform Inquiry, Netflix's The Great Hack, and comments from Christopher Wylie at Antidote Festival, it's more important than ever to safeguard ourselves against the risk of our democracy being hacked, argues Guardian Australia's Dan Stinton.

The issues of dominance and dysfunction in the digital economy are increasingly prominent.

On Sunday, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie spoke at Sydney’s Antidote Festival and explained how data is being used to influence elections and invade consumers’ privacy.

This follows the recent premiere of The Great Hack documentary on Netflix. The film tells the story of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal and sets out how big data and micro-targeting is being used to manipulate the actions of individual citizens.

In parallel with this story, the ACCC’s Digital Platforms Inquiry has produced a world-leading report setting out the complexities of a digital advertising market that has become concentrated in the hands of a few global businesses. It has proposed a set of ambitious recommendations for reform, including new data protection laws for Australian citizens to match those in place in Europe.

Data is the currency that underpins the digital advertising market that, in turn, drives much of the digital economy upon which we all rely. As everyone in our industry knows, the collection of data is now ubiquitous – every time consumers use a credit card, visit a website or use their phone, they are adding to the data that is held on them.

This can have many benefits, not least of which is increasingly personalised and relevant online experiences. But the same data that suggests someone might be interested in a new brand of washing powder can also be used to to influence much bigger decisions, such as what they think about a particular issue, or who they vote for.

There are two main causes of this, each requiring reform.

First, privacy laws have not kept pace with the ability for nefarious actors to aggregate, analyse and exploit personal data generated as a result of everyday online activity.

Second, the lack of transparency in how personal data is used to power political advertising, coordinate paid-for political activity online, and prioritise how content appears in newsfeeds makes it hard for consumers and regulators to understand the reality of influence online.

The inability for regulators to question key business leaders, or access data and information from inside companies like Facebook, means that we may never know what impact the use of personal data by Cambridge Analytica had on the outcome of the Brexit referendum or the election of Donald Trump.

And while Cambridge Analytica has shut down in the wake of journalists holding it to account, we simply don’t have the tools and institutions in place to ensure that a similar company can’t engage in questionable ways of obtaining and using personal data online.

Regardless of which side of politics you are on, the ability to effectively hack the democratic process is not something anyone should welcome. If this is not addressed, then any future election campaign risks becoming an arms race of misinformation.

So, how should we respond to these threats?

Given how quickly technology in this space is changing, there is a temptation to think we can never keep up.

But we can start fighting back by asserting the right to take back control of consumers’ privacy. The recommendations contained in chapter seven of the ACCC’s report would see a similar regulatory framework to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) come to our shores.

The Guardian has seen firsthand how these new privacy rules have had a valuable impact on our readers. We are subject to the GDPR – unlike most Australian publishers – so our readers are entitled to high levels of transparency and control of their data. We’ve also seen how the European advertising market is undergoing a significant improvement, becoming more privacy-conscious and efficient. Ultimately, we believe that the GDPR will help to increase consumer trust and put advertising market participants on a level playing field with one another.

We need increased transparency in advertising, across the board. As a publisher that participates in the advertising market, we put in place safeguards where we can. But our experience is that the market is opaque and lacks accountability, with no way to track the flows of data and payments that are involved in a typical online advertising transaction.

The development of an industry data standard and transparent programmatic receipting would help advertisers and publishers ensure the ethical application of consumer data and an equitable share of ad revenue.

Australia should also take the lead on regulating micro-targeting of advertising on social media platforms for political purposes. We need to put guardrails on these platforms to prevent the spread of viral misinformation through organic and sponsored posts.

This is especially true in the context of personalised feeds and private groups on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, where the ad or social media post one consumer sees could be different to almost everyone else.

We saw an example of this in the recent Australian federal election, with misinformation spread about Labor’s death taxes on Facebook in the final days of the campaign. Facebook’s own fact checkers determined this to be false, but refused to remove it, irrespective of the impact it might have had on the election result.

It’s vital that our regulatory framework and institutional toolkit catches up with the digital technology that now underpins much of our lives, which is why the initial government reaction to the ACCC’s report is welcome.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has committed to the government’s response by the end of the year, “ensuring a viable media landscape because news and journalism is a public good”.

I hope everyone in our industry agrees.

Dan Stinton is the managing director of Guardian Australia

At Mumbrella’s Publish conference on 19 September in Sydney, Dan Stinton will take to the stage in a session titled ‘A new mixed revenue model: How Guardian Australia believes it can see success’. It will explore how The Guardian is monetising journalism, how a business model which doesn’t revolve around advertising can be successful, and the mechanics behind its reader-revenue model. Get your tickets now


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.