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Ethics watchdog SIPO warn about online ads and spending

The State’s ethics watchdog has again called for tighter laws around political spending, and has warned that there are currently no limits imposed on how much online advertising a third party can buy during a referendum.

Sherry Perrault, Head of Ethics and Lobbying Regulation at the Standards In Public Office Commission (SIPO), told the Oireachtas Communications Committee that it would welcome measures that would ensure greater transparency around expenditure regarding the sources of advertising and the funding for same, particularly if these ads are originating and are being funded by parties outside of the State.

Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless who is sponsoring the Bill

Ms Perrault appeared before the Committee to discuss the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill, which is being sponsored by Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless.

She said SIPO wants the language defining what constitutes ‘political purposes’ in the bill to align with the meaning as set out in existing legislation such as the Electoral Act.

Earlier this year, the SIPO Annual Report warned of the potential for foreign actors to use online advertising to influence Irish elections and referendums due to a lack of spending limits, a caution Ms Perrault repeated in the meeting with the committee.

We do have limits in place for an election period, and people who participate as a candidate in an election must disclose their election expenses and are subject to thresholds that they must adhere to, and there are offences for breaching that.

“At a referendum there are no expenditure limits and so any third party, any political party can engage in campaigning in a referendum and there’s absolutely nothing in terms of disclosure or expenditure limits that they must adhere to,” she said.

Karen White, Twitter’s Director of Public Policy in Europe also appeared before the committee and said the company supported the bill’s aims.