Scotland’s Digital Rights Agenda: Beyond the Elections

This spring’s Scottish Parliamentary elections were an opportunity for ORG Scotland to take a step back from the usual legislative workload, as well as our work on public technology in the pandemic, and reflect on the wider digital rights agenda in Scotland at a time of momentous change. With the elections now receding into memory, let’s take a look at what we achieved, what we learned, and how we’d like to continue the dialogue.

Setting the agenda

Ahead of the elections, ORG Scotland engaged with our membership on the digital rights issues which impact our daily lives. We ran a survey of our members and supporters in Scotland in order to identify and assess their key areas of concern in the devolved rights context.

What emerged were three areas of focus:

These areas directly informed the resulting focus of our outputs, policy advocacy, and analysis of political party commitments.

Exploring the issues

We wanted to help our members, and the Scottish public, assess the parties’ commitments to the digital rights issues that were important to them. We also wanted to empower the public to ask informed questions of the candidates. 

To do this, we created a campaigns hub within our ORG Scotland micro-site. This housed all materials related to our work on the Scottish elections and included a policy tracker, where we tracked where the major political parties (Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour, Scottish Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Greens, and the SNP) stood on three key issues identified in our public survey.Each of the policy trackers also outlined a series of recommendations from ORG. 

In the lead up to polling day and as part of our awareness raising campaign, we produced a number of key outputs outlining key issues in respect of Scotland’s digital rights agenda: 

Engaging with the candidates

An election campaign conducted during a pandemic, and mandatory lockdown restrictions, presented some obvious challenges for public engagement. In-person events were out of the question, so we had to think creatively. We opted to pool resources with our colleagues at Amnesty International Scotland to co-organise and co-host Scotland’s first-ever Human and Digital Rights hustings on 20 April. The event was run online and broadcast via Facebook and YouTube. 

The hustings was moderated by Debora Kayembe, Rector at the University of Edinburgh and Dr Angela Daly, from the University of Strathclyde Law School and a member of ORG Scotland’s Advisory Council.

Having taken advice from the Electoral Commission, we invited representatives from Scotland’s five major political parties:: 

  • SNP – Shirley-Anne Somerville
  • Scottish Conservatives – Jeremy Balfour (Lothian regional list candidate)
  • Scottish Greens – Kim Long (Glasgow regional list candidate)
  • Scotish Lib Dems – Fraser Graham (Edinburgh Pentlands candidate)
  • Scottish Labour – James Kelly (Rutherglen, Cambuslang, Halfway and Blantyre candidate)

Based on member input, ORG and Amnesty put questions to the candidates on topics such as the Human Rights Act, the use of digital surveillance by Police Scotland, and online abuse.

We also produced a full transcript to reference at the next election. 

Members complemented us on the relatively mature and complementary nature of the candidates’ engagement in the event despite their political differences, although one member wanted to see more of a traditional debate with a bit of candidate scrapping!

“Collaborating with Open Rights Group to co-host the Human and Digital Rights hustings was an important piece of work in broadening engagement from both the public and candidates, and encouraging both groups of stakeholders to take a holistic view of how policy impacts on rights domestically in all areas of day to day life. Practically speaking the support from ORG was absolutely invaluable to the smooth running of the event.” Liz Thomson, Campaigner Amnesty Scotland 

Ensuring a fair digital election

With doorstep campaigning and in-person events effectively banned due to Covid restrictions, an electoral campaign conducted almost entirely online presented an interesting experiment in free and fair elections. We met this experiment as best we could with several initiatives designed to keep parties on the right track.

Fair Play Pledge Coalition: ORG was one of 11 founding member organisations of the Fair Play Pledge campaign, which called for political parties and candidates to commit to:

1. Campaign openly.
 2. Financial fair play.
 3. Campaign respectfully.
 4. Respect privacy.
 5. Champion defending and enhancing our democracy if elected. 

The pledge was publicly signed by both the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats, alongside 31 MSP candidates from across the major political parties who individually signed the pledge. ORG Scotland was the main organisation in Scotland holding parties to the principles of the Fair Play Pledge. 

ORG Scotland will continue to hold political parties to these principles over the course of this Parliament. 

ORG’s expertise and campaigning experience were invaluable in the planning and execution of the Fair Play Pledge campaign, an initiative that aimed to raise awareness of the digital gaps in UK election law. 
 “The campaign, a UK wide initiative, had a deep impact on the Scottish Parliament elections. This was in no small part thanks to the drive of ORG’s dedicated Scotland office who helped contact prospective MSPs and promote the campaign. The Fair Play Pledge was given extra prominence when featured in Scotland’s first ever Human and Digital Rights hustings, an event co-organised and hosted by ORG. 
The campaign secured sign-ons from MSPs in every party represented in the new Parliament, including party-wide commitments from Anas Sarwar and Scottish Labour and Willie Rennie and the Scottish Liberal Democrats.”- Nico Docherty, Campaigns and Policy Officer at Fair Vote UK and Lead Organiser of the Fair Play Pledge.

Political advertising data: We encouraged our members and supporters in Scotland who are on Facebook to use the Who Targets Me toolbar to determine how they were being targeted for political advertising. 

We were also able to identify some interesting findings in respect of the parties’ personal data practices as well as their online campaigning conduct in the run-up to the election: 

  • In recent years, the SNP had not made much use of Facebook ads, likely due to their safe position across most of Scotland’s seats. For this election, however, they were relatively more active than usual and invested a higher ad spend.
  • Alex Salmond’s Alba party ran a surprisingly effective digital campaign. They assembled a high-quality web site and ran good ads in reasonable volume, which suggested a healthy investment in finance and resources. 
  • Fringe, external, and “dark” third parties were much more active in Scotland than in any other part of the UK. These included non-Scottish provocateur groups such as Turning Point UK and the Young Unionists (a new organisation unrelated to the Northern Irish group of the same name), etc. Some of these activities were, at best, skirting along the very edge of legal electoral communications, and the Electoral Commission is currently investigating.
  • One area of interesting data was how Labour and the Conservatives solely focussed on regional election (“peach paper”) candidates, as opposed to constituency election (“purple paper”) candidates. Both parties’ messaging focussed on securing the union, e.g. preventing a further Scottish independence referendum. These two advertising strategies, in subliminal combination, were potentially quite new for voters who had not previously prioritised the regional elections. Although further research would be required to draw definitive conclusions, this tactic may have played a part in the SNP winning the regional elections but without a majority.

It’s safe to conclude that the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections were conducted fairly and transparently, though there is always room for improvement. To that end, several of our ORG Scotland members have submitted subject access requests to the Scottish political parties to find out what data the parties held and used about them in the run-up to the elections. We’ll report on the findings later this year.

Foundation for future work in Scotland 

In retrospect, our experiment in digital campaigning gave us plenty of insights to learn from over the life of the newly elected Parliament. First and foremost will be advancing a citizens’ Digital Rights Agenda for the next five years. 

Building on our work in the run-up to and during the Scottish elections, we also intend to grow our movement, and create a new generation of digital rights activists, to ensure our privacy, data, and digital rights are respected here in Scotland. We will ensure that our movement is empowered with the facts they need to directly lobby their MSPs on these issues, and a range of other key digital rights concerns, through ongoing engagement with our membership andlocal groups. 

We will also be looking to grow our direct Parliamentary and political engagement, ensuring that the digital rights agenda is heard directly in Holyrood and at Westminster as well. Although we participate in a number of Scottish Government working groups and oversight committees, we know that this engagement is very ad-hoc and carried out in silos. So over the life of this Parliament, we will be looking to make our digital rights representation in government more sustainable and cross-disciplinary.

To that end, ORG Scotland hopes you will continue to support us over the next few years of momentous change in Scotland and beyond.

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