MPs have called on the government to introduce new laws targeting electoral interference amid fears online political campaigns could be damaging democracy.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has urged the government to roll out new legislation within six months to bring electoral law in line with modern digital campaigning techniques.
The ultimatum was laid out in the committee’s report on a recent online harms white paper, which set out plans for new internet regulation.
The proposed crackdown will see the creation of a new regulator with the power to fine tech firms if they fail to stamp out harmful content on their platforms.
But the committee accused the government of ignoring its recommendations and said the white paper had “scant focus” on electoral interference and online political advertising.
“We’re calling on the government to bring in urgent legislation before the end of the year to protect our democracy against online electoral interference,” said DCMS committee chair Damian Collins.
“We know that our electoral laws are not fit for purpose. Political campaigns are fought online, not through the letter box and our laws need to be brought up to date with the digital age.”
Social media firms have come under attack for their role in policing material online amid concerns about foreign influence on political campaigns.
Prime Minister Theresa May has accused Russia of meddling in elections and spreading disinformation online in a bid to deepen political divisions in western countries.
But the committee said the government had failed to acknowledge the risks of foreign investment in elections and the influence of unpaid campaigns and Facebook groups in influencing elections and referendums.
Last week Facebook vice-president Sir Nick Clegg shrugged off accusations his firm played a role in election interference, saying there was “absolutely no evidence” Russia had used the platform to influence the Brexit referendum.
The report also called for a new category for digital spending on political campaigns and urged the government to ensure information about online political advertising is logged in a searchable database accessible to the public.
In evidence submitted to the DCMS committee, information commissioner Elizabeth Denham said it was “surprising and concerning” that the government’s white paper did not have more of a focus on electoral interference and political advertising.
Separately, the MPs also demanded a statutory veto on the appointment of the chief executive of a new online harms regulator.
A government spokesperson said: “The government agrees we need robust safeguards against hostile states, foreign lobbyists and shadowy third parties in place for the digital age.
“We have already pledged to publish a consultation paper on electoral integrity – it is an important convention that the laws affecting political parties should not be changed by governments without proper consultation and discussions with political parties.”
In May the Cabinet Office pledged to launch a consultation on electoral integrity in a bid to bolster the UK’s defences against foreign interference.