Last week, Google became the latest company to announce changes to online political advertising. Online political advertising has been a high profile feature of the current General Election campaign, and commentators have shown how campaigners have used personal data to target messages to specific groups of voters.
The change announced by Google limits political campaigners’ ability to target messages at certain types of audience. Now, adverts will only be able to be targeted by age, gender and location.
This move to tackle the problems caused by political adverts is laudable, but initiatives like this demonstrate the considerable power big tech companies have to quickly change the rules of electoral engagement. It also shows that they can do so with limited public consultation and scrutiny, and little alignment to local electoral rules.
The rules that govern our democracy are an important way by which we uphold the values and ideas we share. But as this policy move from Google demonstrates, national governments are not the only ones making the rules.
In deciding to change how political advertising can occur on its platform, Google has set out its own vision for democracy and has implemented it at startling speed.
This change should not be underestimated, as it shows the power that companies and corporations have to dictate the nature of political debate and engagement - changes they can make without engaging governments or the public at all.
These capacities are significant because, as global companies, these organisations want to establish uniform policies that can be applied around the world - ignoring the very different contexts and norms that define electoral systems.
This creates a danger of a two-tier system of regulation, with campaigners subject to rules imposed both by national governments and by global technology companies.
At the very least, tech companies need to coordinate with national governments, rather than companies simply announcing changes that will have a wide-ranging impact on how elections work.
Tech companies also need to think about the impact of these rapid rule changes. Overnight, Google has altered the rules of engagement, changing what it is possible for election campaigners to do.
Whilst well resourced campaigns will find it easy to adapt, those run on a shoe-string will likely find it harder to make sense of the new rules. Whilst trying to make the system better, Google may therefore actually cause more inequality.
Finally, although Google has set out its plans to prevent targeting practices it feels are problematic, there is no evidence that the changes they have made will have the desired effect. At the moment we have limited evidence about what impact different policy changes will have, so this announcement marks a huge experiment.
With the stakes so high, and with a General Election currently taking place, surely it’s time to ask whether we’re comfortable ceding power to these technology companies.
Dr Kate Dommett is a Senior Lecturer in the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield