The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of Parliament has published its final 111-page report on disinformation and ‘fake news’. The Committee is calling for a compulsory Code of Ethics for tech companies overseen by an independent regulator and wants to see that regulator given powers to launch legal action against any companies breaching the Code. The Committee also calls upon the Government to reform the current electoral communications laws and rules on overseas involvement in UK elections and wants social media companies to be obliged to take down known sources of harmful content, including proven sources of disinformation.
Social media companies failing their obligations on harmful or illegal content would face hefty fines. The MPs have concluded: “Social media companies cannot hide behind the claim of being merely a ‘platform’ and maintain that they have no responsibility themselves in regulating the content of their sites.” The Committee asserts that Facebook “intentionally and knowingly” violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws.
The report’s recommendation chimes with recent statements by ministers indicating that the Government is fully prepared to regulate social media companies following the death of teenager Molly Russell.
Damian Collins MP, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said: “Our inquiry over the last year has identified three big threats to our society. The challenge for the year ahead is to start to fix them. We cannot delay any longer. Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources, delivered through the major social media platforms we use everyday. Much of this is directed from agencies working in foreign countries, including Russia. The big tech companies are failing in the Duty of Care they owe to their users to act against harmful content and to respect their data privacy rights. Companies like Facebook exercise massive market power which enables them to make money by bullying the smaller technology companies and developers who rely on this platform to reach their customers. These are issues that the major tech companies are well aware of, yet continually fail to address. The guiding principle of the ‘move fast and break things’ culture often seems to be that it’s better to apologise than ask permission.”
Collins continued: “We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people. The age of inadequate self-regulation must come to an end. The rights of the citizen need to be established in statute by requiring the tech companies to adhere to a Code of Conduct written into law by Parliament and overseen by an independent regulator. We also have to accept that our electoral regulations are hopelessly out of date for the Internet age. We need reform such that the same principles of transparency of political communications apply online just as they do in the real world. More needs to be done to require major donors to clearly establish the source of their funds.”
Cambridge Analytica data breach
Much of the evidence scrutinised during its inquiry has focused on the business practices of Facebook before, during and after the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal. “We believe that, in its evidence to the Committee, Facebook has often deliberately sought to frustrate our work by giving incomplete, disingenuous and, at times, misleading answers to our questions,” asserted Collins. “Even if Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t believe he’s accountable to the UK Parliament, he most certainly is to the billions of Facebook users across the world. Evidence uncovered by my Committee shows that he still has questions to answer, yet he has continued to duck them, refusing to respond to our invitations directly or sending representatives who don’t have the right information.”
In a damning indictment of the social media pioneer, Collins added: “Mark Zuckerberg continually fails to show the levels of leadership and personal responsibility that should be expected from someone who sits at the top of one of the world’s biggest companies.”
The Committee recommends that the Information Commissioner’s Office carries out a detailed investigation into the practices of the Facebook platform, its use of users’ and users’ friends’ data and the use of ‘reciprocity’ of the sharing of data. The Competition and Markets Authority should conduct a comprehensive audit of the advertising market on social media and investigate whether Facebook has been involved in anti-competitive practices.
MPs note that Facebook, in particular, is unwilling to be accountable. “By choosing not to appear before the Committee and by choosing not to respond personally to any of our invitations, Mark Zuckerberg has shown contempt towards both our Committee and the ‘International Grand Committee’ involving members from nine legislators from around the world.”
In conclusion, Collins stated: “We also repeat our call to the Government to make a statement about how many investigations are currently being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics. We want to find out what was the impact of disinformation and voter manipulation on past elections, including the UK’s EU Referendum in 2016, and we’re calling on the Government to launch an independent investigation.”
Facebook “put democracy at risk”
Colin Truran, principal technology strategist at Quest, has made comment on the Parliamentary Committee’s report (the full contents of which can be read here).
“Facebook and its associated companies are probably the single biggest non-governmental organisation that harvests personal data and social information in the world,” explained Truran, “so it makes a lot of sense to start with that business. Let’s face it. Facebook hasn’t done itself any favours in the way that it has chosen to handle Government requests. Facebook is ‘zombifying’ consumers. It will take direct Government action to shake a bewitched population out of its stupor and back into reality where people actually start to understand the gravity of how their lives are controlled through their personal data.”
Truran went on to observe: “The challenge is going to be how we control the way in which data is combined from different sources and how that data is used. Until we have a handle on this, we’ll not be able to safely take advantages of the benefits such as medical research, city planning and welfare. We have to force organisations to be absolutely transparent about how they’re providing a service through the use of personal information. This, of course, goes straight into the first big problem where such organisations need to protect their Intellectual Property, so being open is the last thing they want to do.”
As far as Truran’s concerned, social media is the enabler for a much bigger problem that we all face, which is how information-rich organisations can influence the way in which we live and our perception of the world without the required checks and balances normally used for democratic Government being in place.
“They are existing outside of the law which lacks the correct set of tools to detect, investigate and apply appropriate penalties. This is a global problem that regularly crosses international boundaries and therefore not something a single country can resolve on its own. We need the countries providing the ability to run these services to work with those that consume them. If we do not then we will see the Internet becoming less and less open, with data traffic boundaries being established in the same way we see in China today as countries fight to wrestle back control of their populations and re-establish social law and order.”
With power comes responsibility
Commenting specifically on the Committee’s report recommendations, legal firm Mishcon de Reya’s head of reputation protection, Emma Woollcott, said: “With great power comes great responsibility. This report may well herald a significant shift in the relationship between tech companies and social media users. Conflicting laws and regulations around issues such as data privacy, fake news and electoral campaigning make the international regulation of social media extremely challenging. A compulsory Code of Ethics should pave the way for the greater protection of individuals’ rights and greater transparency around what we can expect from Facebook when challenging false and damaging content online.”
Jon Baines, Mishcon de Reya’s data protection advisor, added: “The report points to potential data protection and competition law infringements which could lead to mass regulatory complaints and legal claims.”
The company’s competition partner Rob Murray stated: “The Select Committee’s recommendation of a Competition and Markets Authority investigation into Facebook’s practices in the context of the UK online advertising market, and for an independent regulator to oversee a Code of Conduct on ethics, comes hot on the heels of the Cairncross Report, which also called for a regulator and for a Code to establish fair standard contractual terms and for a Competition and Markets Authority inquiry in similar terms. The Government has now followed up with a letter to the Competition and Markets Authority requesting such an investigation. These moves are to be welcomed as we wait to see what the Furman Report for Her Majesty’s Treasury concludes on the possible harms of the Internet platform to consumers, the economy and the structure of competition in relevant markets. These reports signal high levels of scrutiny in an industry that has been able to thrive, largely unregulated, for a significant period of time. When combined with similar investigations and cases in other countries, the collective output is likely to be the greatest driver for meaningful change that we’ve seen to date.”
Meeting with US tech giants
Jeremy Wright (Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) and Digital Minister Margot James are visiting the US this week to discuss how leading tech companies need to take more responsibility in tackling online harms and make the Internet safer. During the visit, Wright and James will be talking to some of the world’s biggest technology firms, including Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple.
“I remain a firm believer that technology has the power to do good and positively impact our society,” asserted James, “but it’s clear that things need to change. With power comes responsibility. The time has come for the tech companies to be properly accountable.”
The meeting comes ahead of the Government’s upcoming Internet Safety White Paper which will set out how a range of online harms will be tackled, while at the same time respecting freedom of expression and promoting innovation.
The visit to the US also follows on from the recently published Cairncross Report on the future of journalism, which recommends placing a ‘news quality obligation’ on large online platforms to improve people’s understanding of the source and trustworthiness of news articles. Tackling disinformation will be part of the US discussions.