MPs have called for a new code of ethics to ensure social media platforms moderate harmful content on their sites.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee published its findings following an investigation into fake news and disinformation.
In the report, MPs labelled Facebook “digital gangsters” and accused the company of obstructing its investigations over an 18-month period. The report also warned that Facebook was actively using its market dominance to suppress rivals and prevent other social media platforms from competing.
“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.
Violating Privacy Rights
Internal Facebook documents showed the tech firm “violated” laws by selling private user data without their permission, the report said.
MPs also warned that democracy was at grave risk from the “malicious and relentless” targeting of UK citizens with disinformation and fake news.
Committee chairman, Damian Collins MP, commented: “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.
“Much of this is directed from agencies working in foreign countries, including Russia.”
Ethics guidelines will be required to establish acceptable practices for social media firms to prevent the proliferation of disinformation identified by users – or companies – on each respective platform.
“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 committee wrote.
The committee appeared to imply that Facebook exhibits a degree of arrogance in regards to its practices, highlighting that the firm seemed unwilling to accept regulation or scrutiny.
Facebook’s “opaque” practices, the report said, appear deliberately designed to “conceal knowledge of and responsibility for specific decisions.”
“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 stated.
Ethics for a Social Media Age
The proposed code of ethics will be overseen by an independent regulator, the committee recommended, which will be granted powers to take legal action against companies who breach it.
It could impose large fines against social media firms, such as Facebook or Twitter, under the proposals.
In an interview with The Telegraph last week, Collins said a new regulator should be introduced and granted powers to monitor, fine and even raid social media firms’ offices.
“The regulator would not just investigate individual instances but also have the right to go into a tech company to look at how the algorithms are working and to make an assessment as to whether they are doing enough to make harmful content difficult to find, to remove it when they see it and have the resources in place to do that effectively,” he told The Telegraph.
“That is the sort of regime we need,” Collins added. “In other industries, this is fairly normal. In the tech sector, good governance has not developed as fast as the sector has developed. It has become an anomaly in a way.”
Electoral Law in the Social Media Age
Examination of electoral law by the committee found it was “not fit for purpose” and should be updated to adapt to a modern era.
“Microtargeted” online political campaigning, the report said, is an issue that must be addressed and will require changes to current legislation.
MPs called for a review of current regulations covering political work during elections and referendums and urged the government to pressure companies to publicise occasions in which disinformation has been spread via their platforms.
Facebook has been under intense scrutiny following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed the targeting of social media users during the 2016 US Elections and the Brexit Referendum.
Russian-linked fake news operations have been placed at the centre of the scandal. Russian involvement in UK politics prompted the committee to contact Ministers asking for information of how many investigations are currently underway.