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An influential committee of British parliamentarians has called for a new social media platform regulator funded from a levy on platforms and with the power to fine companies for breaches of its rules.

The MPs also wants to see the creation of a compulsory code of ethics similar to the UK’s broadcasting code to regulate social media platforms.

The Culture, Media and Sport committee began its investigation into Disinformation and Fake News in 2017 prompted by concerns about the influence of platforms such as Facebook on British politics and society including the influence of the 2016 referendum.

It published its final report on the matter in February.

The committee’s report says: “There is now an urgent need to establish independent regulation. We believe that 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.” 

Legal liability for content

The committee wants to see social media companies facing legal liability for harmful and illegal content, especially if it is not removed following users’ complaints. It wants to see new systems in place to highlight and remove such content. If platforms were found wanting, the committee suggests that a new regulator would be able to launch legal proceedings and levy large fines.

The committee says that this public body should have statutory powers to obtain any information from social media companies that are relevant to its inquiries.

It adds: “This could include the capability to check what data is being held on an individual user, if a user requests such information.” 

Digital gangsters

The committee has also called for an existing UK regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority, to undertake a comprehensive audit of the operation of the online advertising market.

It recommends that the CMA should also investigate whether Facebook specifically has been involved in any anti-competitive practices and conduct a review of Facebook’s business practices towards other developers. It also wants the CMA to decide whether Facebook is unfairly using its dominant market position in social media to decide which businesses should succeed or fail. It says 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 committee also wants to see a big shake up in electoral law in the United Kingdom. The report adds: “It is not fit for purpose and needs to be changed to reflect changes in campaigning techniques, and the move from physical leaflets and billboards to online, micro-targeted political campaigning.”

It makes the following demands

  • Absolute transparency of online political campaigning, including clear, persistent banners on all paid-for political adverts and videos, indicating the source and the advertiser
  • A category introduced for digital spending on campaigns.
  • Explicit rules surrounding designated campaigners’ role and responsibilities.

“The Government should carry out a comprehensive review of the current rules and regulations surrounding political work during elections and referenda including: increasing the length of the regulated period; defining what constitutes political campaigning; and reducing the time for spending returns to be sent to the Electoral Commission.”

Political advertising – demand for full disclosure

The committee adds that tech companies must address the issue of shell companies and other professional attempts to hide identity in advert purchasing, especially around political advertising—both within and outside campaigning periods. There should be full disclosure of the targeting used as part of advertising transparency. The Government should explore ways of regulating the use of external targeting on social media platforms, such as Facebook’s Custom Audiences.

Member of Parliament, Damian Collins, Chair of the DCMS Committee 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 everyday. 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.

“We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people. 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.”

Collins also called on Facebook chief executive to answer the committee’s questions having failed to do so.

Zuckerberg – still wanted

“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. Evidence uncovered by my Committee shows he still has questions to answer yet he’s continued to duck them, refusing to respond to our invitations directly or sending representatives who don’t have the right information. 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.”

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