It’s time to hold ‘digital gangster’ Facebook to account: British MPs

London: 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.

The social media giant is doing this in a world where propaganda and misinformation threaten the “very fabric of our democracy”, according to a new report from the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

The report focuses heavily on criticising Facebook, which it paints as a monopolist that urgently needs to be held accountable for its own misdeeds as well as the malign advertisers and influencers it hosts.

Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergCredit:Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

The report marks the end of the committee’s 18-month investigation into online disinformation that has covered privacy, "fake news" and online interference in elections.

Committee Chair Damian Collins MP said Facebook had “often deliberately sought to frustrate our work”.

An activist wearing a Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg mask stands outside the British parliamentary meeting in Westminster last year.Credit:AP

The company's chief Mark Zuckerberg, who refused three times to give evidence to the committee, “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”, Collins said.

“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,” he said. “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.

Facebook ads combating fake friends appeared in Sydney and Melbourne late last year.Credit:Peter Braig

“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.”

Collins said it was time for a “radical shift in the balance of power” between platforms like Facebook on the one hand, and citizens and government on the other.

The committee wants governments to force tech companies to follow a code of ethics that defined the kind of harmful content they were required to delete.

If they failed to act against harmful and illegal content they should face large fines.

Facebook “should not be able to evade all editorial responsibility for the content shared by its users”, the report found.

Among the “countless innocuous posts” on Facebook, malicious forces were threatening and harassing, disseminating hate speech and propaganda and influencing elections and other democratic processes, the report said, citing Russian attempts to influence public attitudes and elections in the UK and elsewhere.

“Much of [this] Facebook and other social media companies are either unable or unwilling to prevent,” the report found.

It highlighted the mysterious “Mainstream Network”, a pro-Brexit website that spent more than a quarter of a million pounds on ads in 2018, targeting specific constituents to put pressure on MPs to reject Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit strategy. However Mainstream Network was run anonymously.

“There was no way of knowing who was paying for the ads and why,” the report said.

It also said populist, right-wing news sites were using social media to push “conspiratorial, anti-establishment content”. One such site helped far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson, become the second most popular British political figure on Facebook.

Last year a new German law came into force that requires tech companies to remove hate speech within 24 hours and fines them €20 million if they fail.

Also last year France passed a law allowing judges to order the immediate removal of online articles judged to be “disinformation” during election campaigns.

The committee recommended new regulations on digital political advertising, calling for “absolute transparency” that would allow anyone who saw on online political ad to determine who made it, who uploaded it, who paid for it and what country they came from.

The proposed UK regulator would also help users check what data a tech company held on them.

And the committee wants an audit of the advertising market on social media, and an official investigation into whether Facebook was using its market power – vested in the value of the data it holds on its users – to decide which businesses succeed or fail.

“Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters’ in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law,” the report said.

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