Facebook has been accused of ‘intentionally and knowingly’ breaking privacy and competition law in the UK, according to a scathing parliamentary report which calls for stricter regulation around the spread of disinformation on the internet and labels the social network as a ‘digital gangster’.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee published its findings after an 18-month investigation into disinformation and fake news, particularly looking at Facebook’s data practices, the use its of platform by foreign actors to influence political campaigns, and its unwillingness to cooperate with inquiries or on the idea of being accountable to regulators.
The report states, according to documents the committee obtained, it is clear that Facebook had been willing to bend the rules in order to sell on people’s data without their permissions, while starving other companies of data in an anti-competitive manner. As a result, it calls on the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to carry out a detailed investigation into Facebook’s data practices and for the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to investigate whether Facebook has breached anti-competition laws.
“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,” said Damian Collins, chair of the DCMS Committee. “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.”
The report also accuses Facebook CEO of ‘contempt’ for parliament due to his refusal to accept any of the committee’s invitations to give evidence – choosing to send more junior members of staff to face the committee on each of the three occasions instead.
“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,” said Collins. “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.”
It goes on to deem that current electoral law is ‘not fit for purpose’ because it has failed to keep up with the times. The report calls for complete transparency when it comes to political campaigning on the internet, meaning there are clear banners on all political ads highlighting the source and the advertiser.
“There also needs to be an acknowledgement of the role and power of unpaid campaigns and Facebook Groups that influence elections and referendums (both inside and outside the designated period),” said the report.
Furthermore, the committee demands that the Electoral Commission is given more power to approach social media companies about information and the power to intervene when an overseas actor is attempting to influence a political vote.
On the topic of foreign influence, the report refers to requests that it has made to Facebook for both oral and written evidence about Russian advertising involvement during the 2016 US presidential election. The MPs concluded that the Facebook executives that had appeared as witnesses had “deliberately misled the Committee or they were deliberately not briefed by senior executives at Facebook, about the extent of Russian interference in foreign elections.”
The report also makes it clear that Facebook and other social media platforms have a responsibility to comply with the UK law and not facilitate the illegal donations to political campaigns for foreign entities.
“We also have to accept that our electoral regulations are hopelessly out of date for the internet age. We need reform so 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,” said Collins.
“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 Referendum in 2016 and are calling on the Government to launch an independent investigation.”