Tue | Jul 23, 2024

Editorial | Ombudsman ECJ and AI

Published:Wednesday | June 19, 2024 | 12:08 AM
In this February photo, people are seen waiting outside Alligator Pond Primary School to cast their votes in the local government elections.
In this February photo, people are seen waiting outside Alligator Pond Primary School to cast their votes in the local government elections.

The Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) has not – insofar as this newspaper is aware – offered an assessment of its performance as the political ombudsman, a job it inadvisably accepted on the eve of last February’s municipal elections.

If a review was done, it has not been widely reported upon, and neither does it seem to have been posted on the ECJ’s website. So, it is not clear if Ombudsman ECJ received any complaints of breaches of the Political Code of Conduct, which it now has the job of policing; whether, on its own volition or at the behest of complainants, it instigated investigations into alleged breaches of the code; or what were the result of those inquiries.

Further, no one knows whether having had an initial go in the role of political ombudsman, the ECJ believes the current code, to which the island’s political parties signed on nearly two decades ago, remains relevant or adequate, given the rapid advancement in technology over the period, or if the tools at its disposal to invigilate the code are sufficient to the task. These are among things to be urgently addressed, including the role artificial intelligence (AI) might play in future elections, and whether AI should be regulated.

It would be understandable if the ECJ has not as yet got around to giving serious thought to these issues. It may have perhaps assumed the ombudsman role was a mild, relatively inconsequential appendage to its operations, which might be treated almost as an afterthought.

After all, the commission was established – initially as the Electoral Advisory Committee – to deal with the hard, nuts-and-bolts stuff that would be transformative of a fraught, partisan electoral regime that, even as it largely delivered on the will of the electorate, allowed for the disenfranchisement of large swathes of voters. Over the four-and-half decades of its existence, the ECJ (which includes members from the two major parties and a configuration that gives its ‘independent’ appointees significant sway in decision-making) has had great success in creating a highly credible election process. It has done this by professionalising the system and, to a large extent, removing the perceived rewards of cheating.

DISAGREED

The ECJ has put together an apparatus and process which, as Karl Samuda, the government parliamentarian, put it, no one should be “tinkering” with. Which is why The Gleaner, like the election monitoring group, Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE), and other NGOs, disagreed with the Government’s decision to subsume the Office of the Political Ombudsman into the ECJ.

It would be imprudent, CAFFE argued with great logic, “to submit to the Electoral Commission of Jamaica the ethical questions which are normally dealt with by the political ombudsman”.

The contrary position that the Office of the Political Ombudsman had run its course and was without powers to enforce its sanctions against politicians who breached the code of conduct (as it was the ombudsman who made the laws) was, to say the least, disingenuous.

Indeed, any shortcomings of the political ombudsman, real and/or imagined, were open to easy legislative fixes, and by discussions between the political parties and the ombudsman.

This, therefore, brings us back to the question of how well Mr Ombudsman ECJ thinks it performed in February; what, if any, new rules should be in place; and whether it should be further empowered to deal with matters on the ethical front of Jamaican politics.

Jamaicans, constitutionally, are to vote in a general election in 15 months, unless Prime Minister Andrew Holness decides on an earlier date. Compared to even the previous general election in 2020, the capacity of AI to do things, including the creation and manipulation of information and images, has grown exponentially.

DANGERS

But the great possibilities of artificial intelligence also bring dangers, including the potential, with misuse, to undermine democracy. The ability of AI to produce images to the identical likeness, in form and voice, of living (or dead) people is already being deployed in political campaigns, sometimes to generate fake news and purvey misinformation.

In February, for example, a voice almost identical to US President Joe Biden was on telephone robocalls, urging people in the state of New Hampshire not to vote in a primary election in which he was on the ballot. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the regulator of radio, television and cable in the US, has made it clear that the ban on those robocalls that consumers did not agree to receive, also applied to robocalls generated by AI.

The FCC is separately mulling a rule that would require politicians to tell audiences whether their political ads, all or in part, were generated by AI.

The ECJ, in its role of political ombudsman, should be talking with the political parties on updating the code of conduct, taking into account the realities of artificial intelligence. Those discussions, from a regulatory standpoint, must also include the Broadcasting Commission, the regulator of broadcasting in Jamaica.