Facebook is a “digital gangster” that violated its users’ privacy for profit, exploited its market power to kill or prefer businesses and has resisted scrutiny by governments around the world, a British parliamentary committee has found.
UK MPs stated that Facebook needs far stricter regulation, with tough and urgent action necessary to end the spread of disinformation on its platform.
In a damning report that singled out Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg for what it said was a failure of leadership and personal responsibility, the UK parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said the companies had proved ineffective in stopping harmful content and disinformation on their platforms.
The scale of the report – it drew from 170 written submissions and evidence from 73 witnesses who were asked more than 4,350 questions – is without precedent. And it’s what contributes to making its conclusions so damning: that the government must now act. That Facebook must be regulated. That Britain’s electoral laws must be re-written from the bottom up; the report is unequivocal, they are not “fit for purpose”. And that the government must now open an independent investigation into foreign interference in all British elections since 2014.
“The guiding principle of the ‘move fast and break things’culture often seems to be that it is better to apologise than ask permission,” committee chairman Damian Collins said.
“We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people.”
Collins said 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,” he said.
Facebook became the focus of the committee’s 18-month inquiry after whistleblower Christopher Wylie alleged that political consultancy Cambridge Analytica had obtained the data of millions of users of the social network.
The report includes a new set of internal Facebook documents published today – from Six4Three, a software development company involved in a bitter legal dispute with Facebook – that show how Facebook was wheeling and dealing with users’ data. How it traded access to their friends’ data with companies prepared to buy its advertising. And how Facebook shut off access for others because it viewed them as “competition”.
Zuckerberg apologised last year for a “breach of trust” over the scandal.
But he refused to appear three times before British lawmakers, a stance that showed “contempt” towards parliament and the members of nine legislatures from around the world, the committee 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,” Collins said.
“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 lawmaker identified major threats to society from the dominance of tech companies such as Facebook – which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram – Google and Twitter.
How such data, particularly in terms of political campaigning, was shared by Facebook was at the heart of the inquiry, alongside the effects of fake news.
“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 every day,” concluded the report.
“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.”
The report called for:
- a compulsory code of ethics for tech companies, overseen by an independent regulator
- the regulator to be given powers to launch legal action if companies breach the code
- the government to reform current electoral laws and rules on overseas involvement in UK elections
- social media companies to be forced to take down known sources of harmful content, including proven sources of disinformation
- tech companies operating in the UK to be taxed to help fund the work for the Information Commissioner’s Office and any new regulator set up to oversee them
In response, Facebook said:
“We share the Committee’s concerns about false news and election integrity and are pleased to have made a significant contribution to their investigation over the past 18 months, answering more than 700 questions and with four of our most senior executives giving evidence.”
“We are open to meaningful regulation and support the committee’s recommendation for electoral law reform. But we’re not waiting.
“We have already made substantial changes so that every political ad on Facebook has to be authorised, state who is paying for it and then is stored in a searchable archive for seven years.
“No other channel for political advertising is as transparent and offers the tools that we do.”