Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly refused to appear before the DCMS committee (Pic: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have been harshly criticised by MPs investigating the insidious effect of fake news on democracy.
In its final report into disinformation and fake news, the parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee said that Facebook had "intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws", and it called for a compulsory code of ethics for tech companies to be overseen by an independent regulator, funded by a compulsory levy on tech companies.
It claimed that social media companies are hiding behind their status as mere ‘platforms’ for content, with no responsibility for what is posted, and failing to remove harmful or illegal content from their sites.
By curating and recommending harmful content to users, the committee argued that sites such as Facebook are complicit in publishing it.
The report said that a code of ethics would define what constitutes ‘harmful’ content. Clear legal liabilities should be set to require social media companies to remove illegal or harmful content or face "hefty fines" in proportion to their turnover.
The committee also accused Facebook of abusing users’ data privacy and engaging on uncompetitive actions following a review of a cache of internal emails obtained by the app developer Six4Three.
According to the committee, emails reveal that Facebook was willing to override users’ privacy settings for the benefit of certain app developers, while denying it to others, and to charge very high prices for that data, leading the committee to comment: "It is evident that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws."
The committee is highly critical of Facebook for showing "contempt" to parliament for failing to answer multiple demands to appear before the committee and for sending junior members of Facebook who were not properly briefed to answer questions. In some cases, promises to send information which the committee had requested during these meetings has still not been fulfilled, all of which has led MPs to complain that Facebook is "acting in bad faith".
Micro-targeting of political advertising is another concern raised by the committee. It said that current electoral law has not caught up with the realities of modern social media advertising, particularly the ability to send tailored advertising to targeted individuals.
It called for clear information to be displayed on all online political advertising identifying who has paid for it. The Electoral Commission should be given additional powers to compel social media companies to turn over this information on demand. The committee also demanded action on the purchase of political advertising by shell corporations and foreign powers such as Russia.
"The UK is clearly vulnerable to covert digital influence campaigns and the government should be conducting analysis to understand the extent of the targeting of voters, by foreign players, during past elections," the committee said.
Damian Collins MP, chair of the DCMS committee, commented: "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.
"These are issues that the major tech companies are well aware of, yet continually fail to address…. 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."
Richard Holway, chairman of TechMarketView, told SC Media UK: "The issue boils down to whether social media companies are merely ‘platforms’ or ‘publishers’. I’ve often cited my own Farnham Herald Test. Over the last ten years the Farnham Herald has lost much of its classified advertising to social media – from house sales to ‘find me a plumber in Farnham’. Conversely the Farnham Herald employs real people who not only write original stories but vet the letters/comments sent in for publication. An advert extolling self-harm would be as unthinkable as would a letter suggesting the murder of the local MP. That vetting costs money just as the source of their revenue is moving elsewhere.
"I think the days where social media companies say that the stuff they carry ‘has nothing to do with me, guv’ whilst reaping huge financial reward, are coming to an end. Implementing any new regulations will cost social media companies big time. Although AI will of course help, it will not be the total solution. More and more real people will have to employed. At least that will start to level the playing field for the likes of the Farnham Herald."
Facebook has said in the past that it works with fact checkers to control fake news on its site.