• UK Parliament calls for urgent action on Facebook
  • Independent regulator to police new Code of Ethics
  • UK urges Facebook to change its business model

Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless spread of fake news and targeted misinformation of users’ data, a UK Parliamentary report has concluded.

Source: PixieMe / Shutterstock

Facebook has used its digital dominance to rival and curb its competition in breach of data protection laws and ethical business practices, according to findings from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee’s 18-month investigation.

It found that the practices of Facebook target citizens using the social media platform with “dark adverts” which risk democracy.

The report, which focussed on the business practices of Facebook before and after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, includes proposals for a new Code of Ethics to be overseen by an independent regulator with the power to launch legal action.

Warning of the prowess and market dominance Facebook has to rival and prevent competition was highlighted, calling for stricter regulation after Facebook was found to “intentionally and knowingly” violate both data privacy and anti-competition laws.

DCMS chair Damian 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.”

The report said Facebook needs to significantly change its business model and its practices to maintain trust. It called for a radical shift in the power balance between social media platforms and people and stated that “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.”

Collins continued: “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.”

Last October Facebook was fined the maximum penalty possible £500,000 under the UK’s data protection law for its lack of transparency and security issues relating to the harvesting of data, however. Facebook appealed the fine on the basis there was no evidence.

Facebook’s behaviour poses challenges to competition regulators, Collins added: “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.”

Zuckerberg did not respond to invitations from the committee to directly address the statement against Facebook and the recommendations to future proof democracy.

“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,” Collins added.

Facebook’s polarising effect
Recommendations in the report pointed to propaganda and politically-aligned bias becoming magnified in today’s information technology era and the ubiquity of social media must be addressed.

The report noted that despite specific requests, Facebook has not provided one example of a business excluded from its platform because of serious data breaches.

It concluded: “We believe that is because it only ever takes action when breaches become public and we consider that data transfer for value is Facebook’s business model and that Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that ‘we’ve never sold anyone’s data’ is simply untrue.”

“Facebook makes its money by selling access to users’ data through its advertising tools. It further increases its value by entering into comprehensive reciprocal data-sharing arrangements with major app developers who run their businesses through the Facebook platform.”

The report concluded: “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 recommendations aligned with recent reports indicating the Government is prepared to regulate social media companies.

The Committee aims to see firm recommendations for legislation to create a regulatory system for online content that is as effective as that for offline content.

It repeats its recommendation for new independent regulation to be funded by a levy on tech companies operating in the UK.