Facebook and other social media companies under fire by British parliament

Back in 2017, Cambridge Analytica, the British data mining and political consultancy firm, was accused of influencing the turnout of the 2016 U.S. elections, as a result of privacy and data breaches on Facebook's part. Since then, Facebook has undergone heavy investigation regarding its handling and alleged misuse of private user data, including a two-day-long questioning session at the hands of the US Congress, investigations by the EU and further probes by the FTC that have left the firm looking down the barrel of a possibly multi-billion dollar fine.

In its final report published under this investigation, the UK's Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee, a parliamentary body, is asking for the establishment of an obligatory "Code of Ethics", as well as a regulatory body empowered with legal authority to monitor, control and penalize social media and tech companies, especially firms like Facebook who dominate and monopolize the market. It suggested this body be funded by a levy on tech firms in the UK.

Spurred by the political onslaught of the data breach by Cambridge Analytica, it also called for the reform of laws concerning electoral communications and rules on foreign involvement in British elections.

“We also repeat our call to the Government to make a statement about how many investigations are currently being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics. We want to find out what was the impact of disinformation and voter manipulation on past elections including the UK Referendum in 2016 and are calling on the Government to launch an independent investigation.”

Facebook was singled out in the report and criticized severely for its malpractice of abusing the privacy preferences of users and sharing their personal data with third parties. According to the report, analysis of certain emails from within the company between the years 2011 to 2015 provided proof that Facebook was prepared to breach its users' privacy settings to exchange data with app developers for a considerable price tag, while at the same time refusing to share data with other companies like Six4Three, ultimately resulting in the latter running out of business. The report concluded that this evidence proves that Facebook "intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws.”

MP Damian Collins, chair of the DCMS, commented: “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." He also addressed Zuckerberg directly, making a bold statement: "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."

Speaking on behalf of Facebook, the company's British public policy manager, Karim Palant, corresponded with Mashable in an email, stating that the company in agrees with the DCMS's "concerns about false news and election integrity" and is pleased with Facebook's "significant contribution" to the committee.

Palant went on to say that although the company still has much to achieve, Facebook today is very different from what it used to be one year ago. The number of people allocated to discover bad content has grown three times larger, as has Facebook's investment in the areas of AI and machine learning to detect abuse. He further commented, "We are open to meaningful regulation and support the committee's recommendation for electoral law reform ... We also support effective privacy legislation that holds companies to high standards in their use of data and transparency for users".

In the matter of disinformation and fake news, the report repeated several recommendations from a previous interim report published in July 2018, calling for social media companies to be forced to take down "known sources of harmful content, including proven sources of disinformation."

So far, the majority of social media and tech companies operate on a self-regulatory system regarding the implementation of rules and regulations pertaining to consumer data privacy and data usage. Perhaps this onset of investigations will result in the formation of new ethical and moral standards for these companies.

Source: UK Parliament via Mashable

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