UK calls for tighter regulation of 'digital gangster' Facebook

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Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like digital gangsters, UK lawmakers say.
Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like digital gangsters, UK lawmakers say.

UK lawmakers have come down hard on Facebook, calling for tighter regulation and scrutiny of the world's biggest social networking platform.

Yesterday, the lawmakers issued a damning report, dubbed the "Disinformation and 'fake news': Final Report", alleging Facebook "intentionally and knowingly" violated UK's privacy and competition laws.

This as Facebook faces more scrutiny from many jurisdictions over scandals relating to data privacy issues, election interference and spreading fake news.

One of the biggest scandals to hit the social networking site last year was when a whistle-blower revealed Cambridge Analytica improperly harvested the personal Facebook data of up to 87 million people in order to profile and target users for political advertisements.

In their report, UK parliamentarians say Facebook operates by monitoring both users and non-users, tracking their activity and retaining personal data.

They note 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 says.

Meanwhile, it adds, among the countless innocuous postings of celebrations and holiday snaps, some malicious forces use Facebook to threaten and harass others, publish revenge porn, disseminate hate speech and propaganda of all kinds, and influence elections and democratic processes; much of which Facebook, and other social media companies, are either unable or unwilling to prevent.

The lawmakers say the big tech companies must therefore not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight.

"The legislative tools already exist. They must now be applied to digital activity, using tools such as privacy laws, data protection legislation, anti-trust and competition law.

"If companies become monopolies, they can be broken up, in whatever sector. Facebook's handling of personal data, and its use for political campaigns, are prime and legitimate areas for inspection by regulators, and it should not be able to evade all editorial responsibility for the content shared by its users across its platforms," the report says.

It points out that in a democracy, there is a need to experience a plurality of voices and, critically, to have the skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices.

"While the Internet has brought many freedoms across the world and an unprecedented ability to communicate, it also carries the insidious ability to distort, mislead, and produce hatred and instability.

"We invited Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook - the social media company that has over 2.25 billion users and made $40 billion in revenue in 2017 - to give evidence to us and to this committee; he chose to refuse, three times.

"Social media companies cannot hide behind the claim of being merely a 'platform' and maintain they have no responsibility themselves in regulating the content of their sites. Despite all the apologies for past mistakes that Facebook has made, it still seems unwilling to be properly scrutinised."

The UK lawmakers believe that by choosing not to appear before the committee and not to respond personally to any of their invitations, Zuckerberg has shown contempt towards both the UK Parliament and the 'International Grand Committee', involving members from nine legislatures from around the world.

They add Facebook's management structure is opaque to those outside the business and this seemed to be designed to conceal knowledge of and responsibility for specific decisions.

"Our interim report recommended that clear legal liabilities should be established for tech companies to act against harmful or illegal content on their sites. There is now an urgent need to establish independent regulation.

"We believe a compulsory code of ethics should be established, overseen by an independent regulator, setting out what constitutes harmful content. The independent regulator would have statutory powers to monitor relevant tech companies; this would create a regulatory system for online content that is as effective as that for offline content industries."

The report also notes "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".

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