Large tech companies, including the likes of Facebook, are not doing enough to tackle fake news, disinformation and harmful content online. MPs on an influential parliamentary committee have urged the government to establish an independent regulator to tackle the market dominance of such companies.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee also argues that companies that fail to meet obligations on harmful or illegal content should face hefty fines.
The key recommendations and findings coming out of the Committee’s investigations, include:
- Calls for the creation of a Compulsory Code of Ethics for tech companies overseen by an independent regulator
- The regulator to be given powers to launch legal action against companies breaching code
- For the government to reform current electoral communications laws and rules on overseas involvement in UK elections
- For social media companies to be obliged to take down known sources of harmful content, including proven sources of disinformation
The Committee has also found that electoral law is ‘not fit for purpose’ and that Facebook “intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws”.
Damian Collins MP, chair of the DCMS 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 is better to apologise than ask permission.
“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.”
Facebook has been embroiled in scandal for the past year over its protection of users’ data, particularly as it relates to Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in democratic elections, as well as the social network’s management of fake news and harmful content.
Facebook has said that it is targeting fake news and disinformation through the use of a ranking algorithm that identifies misleading, sensational or spammy posts and lowers them in the News Feed as part of an update.
The Committe’s report out today calls for clear legal liabilities to be established for tech companies to act against harmful or illegal content on their sites. A regulator should be responsible for monitoring tech companies, backed by statutory powers to launch legal action against companies in breach of the code.
The report also found that in certain instances Facebook was willing to override its users’ privacy settings in order to transfer data to some app developers, to charge high prices in advertising to some developers (for the exchange of data), and starve some developers of that data. MPs concluded that “it is evident that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws”.
The Committee has also found that current electoral law is not fit for purpose. It believes that the law has failed to reflect a move away from billboards and leaflets to online micro-targeted campaigning.
The report calls for absolute transparency of political campaigning, with clear banners on all paid-for political advertisements and videos, identifying the source and the advertiser.
The Electoral Commission should also be given more powers including the legal right to compel organisations they don’t currently regulate, such as social media companies, to provide information. It should also have the power to increase the size of fines to reflect a company’s turnover.
Collins, chair of the Committee, also had some stern words regarding Facebooks’ cooperation into the investigation. He said:
“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.
“Even if Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t believe he is accountable to the UK Parliament, he is to the billions of Facebook users across the world. Evidence uncovered by my Committee shows he still has questions to answer yet he’s continued to duck them, refusing to respond to our invitations directly or sending representatives who don’t have the right information. 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.”