Facebook has come in for strong criticism from British Members of Parliament (MPs), as the authorities attempt to reduce the immense influence of social media companies in society.
The United Kingdom (UK) Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, in its final report on disinformation and ‘fake news’, focused on the power of social media and its failure to protect users from harmful content.
It found that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and 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, Chairman of the 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,” Mr Collins added.
“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.”
The DCMS Committee looked in depth at the business practices of Facebook, whose founder, Mark Zuckerberg, continually failed to respond to queries from the parliamentary body.
Mr Collins 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,” Mr Collins stated.
The report noted that Facebook, in particular, was unwilling to be accountable to regulators around the world.
“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,” the report added.
The Committee recommended in its interim report, clear legal liabilities to be established for tech companies to act against harmful or illegal content on their sites.
The report calls for a compulsory Code of Ethics defining what constitutes harmful content.
It suggested that an independent 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 warned that tech companies that failed in their obligations on harmful or illegal content would face hefty fines.
“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 DCMS Committee said.
Another thorny issue that the Committee investigated was politics in the age of the internet.
“We…have to accept that our electoral regulations are hopelessly out of date for the internet age,” said Committee Chairman Collins.
“We need reform so that the same principles of transparency of political communications apply online, just as they do in the real world.
“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.”
Mr Collins added: “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.”