Data-led campaigns and PayPal donations under scrutiny as UK election looms

5 Nov 2019

The UK house of parliament. Image: © Christian/

With a general election scheduled for December, UK lawmakers are attempting to stem illegal donations and campaigning while ensuring data protection rights are respected.

Political parties in the UK have been warned that the data regulator will be watching over their general election campaigning activity to ensure it stays within the law.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has written to 13 main UK parties explaining that complying with personal data protection and electronic marketing laws is essential to trust and confidence in the democratic system.

“People expect their personal information to be used in line with the law and, where that doesn’t happen in digital campaigning, there’s a danger that public trust and confidence in the broader democracy process is damaged,” information commissioner Elizabeth Denham said in the letter.

“It’s crucial that candidates and campaigners get this right, and the ICO will be monitoring the situation throughout.”

Respecting data protection rights

The ICO is directing parties to a draft framework code of practice for the use of personal data in political campaigning and sets out five important requirements to comply with the law before, during and after voters go to the polls on 12 December.

An investigation by the regulator into the use of data analytics for political purposes uncovered a number of concerns linked to the use of commercial behavioural advertising techniques and the lack of transparency of profiling during recent political campaigns.

The organisation said it found several areas where action was required to improve each of the parties’ compliance with data protection law, which they had already been warned about in July 2018.

“People’s awareness of their data protection rights has never been greater, and their expectations that those rights are respected never higher,” Denham added.

Monitoring PayPal donations

Meanwhile, PayPal has defended its platform amid concerns of anonymous foreign donors using the service to donate to political parties in the UK.

Official donations of £500 or more must be given by a “permissible donor” who should either be somebody listed on the UK electoral roll or a business registered and operating in the UK.

PayPal, which processes 27m transactions every day, says it uses a number of checking systems to look for suspicious activity. However, the payments firm told a UK government committee that, under the current rules, it is up to the political party to check if donations come from a permitted source.

‘Data privacy principles require that we don’t automatically push too much information’

“I think it’s still obviously the obligation of the political party concerned to make sure that any payments they are receiving are permissible,” said Richard Nash, vice-president and head of global government relations at PayPal.

Senior executives from PayPal told MPs on the sub-committee investigating disinformation that those accepting donations through its platform can access the address of a donor but they must enable it first. They claim the online payment service does not do this by default because of legal obligations on privacy.

“Data privacy principles require that we don’t automatically push too much information … You’re not meant to show more information than is requested or required,” said Eva Gustavsson, director of government relations for PayPal in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Ian Lucas – who is standing down as a Labour MP in the upcoming general election – said responsibility should fall on platform providers such as PayPal as well as political parties.

“It seems from what you’re saying that I can receive payments through PayPal, and although I may be breaking the law in my political party, you don’t seem to think you have any responsibility in this area. You seem to think it’s all the responsibility of the political party,” he said.

– PA Media