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Transparency, Disinformation, and New Legislation for Political Parties

Kajsa Ollongren|
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Kajsa Ollongren

The battle against disinformation and for transparency in politics has to be fought jointly by governments and the private sector.

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As Interior Minister, I deal with matters relating to the state of democracy in the Netherlands on a daily basis. There are two aspects that I would like to single out here: trust in political parties and the fight against disinformation. These affect transparency – the heart of the work of the Open Government Partnership – they reach beyond the interests of the Netherlands, and they are interlinked.

The situation in the Netherlands is a relatively healthy one. Trust in democracy is at a high level. The same goes for trust in Dutch elections, which has been reaffirmed time and again by foreign observers. We are regularly invited to talk about our achievements in this regard. This high level of trust is a precious asset that we obviously cherish and wish to maintain.

We have a long tradition of attaching great importance to the independence of political parties. Therefore, we are in principle wary about imposing laws or regulations on the nature, shape, and funding of political parties. This means that, unlike a number of other western democracies, the Netherlands does not as yet have a general law on political parties. The question, however, is whether – in the light of the online revolution – this position is still adequate in present times.

Technological developments are moving ahead at a rapid pace all over the world. They bring benefits, but at the same time also make us vulnerable. The internet gives us a greater degree of freedom in airing our opinions, thereby facilitating a fundamental constitutional right: citizens’ ability to challenge and to be critical. On the other hand, we are also witnessing foreign interference in democratic elections, such as through the dissemination of disinformation. These developments are occurring at a time of increasing polarisation in our western societies. Heated debates and strongly held opinions have always been part and parcel of everyday life. And that is as it should be. However, with the increased use of the internet, it is becoming increasingly difficult to trace texts back to their original authors.

To prevent the exploitation of society’s differences through disinformation, there needs to be greater clarity as to where the information comes from. The Dutch cabinet would like to see political parties set an example in this regard. That is why I am proposing the creation of a Political Parties Act.

The key word in the new act will be transparency. We seek to introduce greater transparency into how political parties are funded while making online election campaigns and political advertisements more transparent, as a means of combatting disinformation.

In addition to existing rules, we are proposing to prohibit all foreign donations to Dutch political parties, with the exception of donations emanating from the European Union member states. Financial ties with political parties in the European Union fall under the free movement of capital and the close relations that most Dutch political parties have with their European sister parties. Dutch citizens who are eligible to vote but reside outside the Netherlands can still donate.

We are also aiming to make political campaigns more transparent. Until now, there have been very few laws governing electoral campaigns in the Netherlands. However, a State Commission recently recommended that Dutch political parties taking part in elections to the House of Representatives should be obliged to report on the digital instruments that they use during election campaigns. Possible examples include data analysis; micro targeting; and other digital technologies for profiling citizens, reaching them, and providing them with information. The State Commission also advocated compulsory transparency regarding political advertisements so that it is immediately clear what they are and who is responsible for putting out the message contained in them. We will be giving these recommendations our serious consideration and incorporate them into the new act, where possible.

Fortunately, we are not the only ones. These matters are coming under scrutiny in other countries as well. The exchange of knowledge and best practices at the European level can be greatly beneficial. That being the case, researchers in the Netherlands studied the impact of social media and search engines, in the run-up to our regional elections of 20 March, and continue to do so ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections. They have also been looking at the transparency of the origin of information from search engines and on social media.

In this matter, technology companies play a key role. For example, Twitter recently announced that it will only allow political advertisements in the European Union from parties that have registered on the platform in advance. This will improve transparency to Twitter users as to who has paid for a particular advertisement and whom it is intended for.

The battle against disinformation and for transparency in politics has to be fought jointly by governments and the private sector. It is a positive sign that companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Mozilla have signed our European Code of Practice. However, the code will only be of use if it is actually complied with. Let us, as governments, call upon these companies to ensure that they adhere to these agreements and work jointly to safeguard our democracies from online interference. 

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