“Facebook seems willing neither to be regulated nor scrutinised”: Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee publishes Final Report on Disinformation and ‘fake news’

February 18, 2019

The House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has published a brutal report on what they see as the many failings of Facebook in combatting disinformation online. 

The Report is the result of 18 months of investigation by the Committee during which the Committee held 23 oral evidence sessions, received over 170 written submissions, heard evidence from 73 witnesses and asked over 4,350 questions at the hearings. The inquiry famously hit the headlines when it obtained and published court documents disclosed in US litigation involving Facebook. 

Although the original scope of the inquiry did not mention Facebook specifically the Final Report aims its fire almost entirely on them, stating at paragraph 29 of Chapter 2 that “Facebook seems willing neither to be regulated nor scrutinised” and dealing at length with the fall-out from Cambridge Analytica / SCL saga. The Committee also accuses Mark Zuckerberg of showing contempt for not appearing before either the Committee itself or the International Grand Committee it called as part of the inquiry. 

Aside from the criticism of Facebook, the final report reiterates and enhances some of its recommendations set out in the Interim Report summarised as below:  

  • clear legal liabilities should be established for tech companies to act against harmful or illegal content on their sites
  • 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, creating a regulatory system for online content that is as “effective as that for offline content industries”
  • the Code of Ethics should be similar to the Broadcasting Code issued by Ofcom and be overseen the independent regulator who would have powers launch legal proceedings and fine those not acting within the Code 
  • inferred data should be as protected under the law as personal information and privacy law should be extended to include models used to make inferences about an individual, in particular during political campaigning 
  • a levy should be placed on tech companies operating in the UK to support the enhanced work of the ICO. The Government’s response to the Interim Report implied no further funding would be made available and the Committee urges them to reassess this position  
  • the regulator should have powers to obtain information from social media companies relevant to its inquiries and have access to tech companies’ security mechanisms and algorithms, to ensure they are operating responsibly. The Committee asks the Government to put forward proposals along these lines in its forthcoming White Paper 
  • the ICO should carry out a detailed investigation into the practices of the Facebook Platform, its use of users’ and users’ friends’ data, and the use of ‘reciprocity’ of the sharing of data
  • the Competitions and Market Authority (CMA) should conduct a comprehensive audit of the operation of the advertising market on social media. and investigate whether Facebook specifically has been involved in any anti-competitive practices or is abusing its market position  
  • the Government should look at the ways in which the UK law should define digital campaigning, including what constitutes online political advertising 
  • explore ways in which the Electoral Commission can be given more powers to carry out its work, such as having the power to compel organisations that they do not currently regulate, including social media companies, to provide information relevant to their inquiries; increasing the current maximum fine limit of £20,000 and change to a fine based on a fixed percentage of turnover; allowing the Electoral Commission to petition against an election due to illegal actions: such petitions can currently can only be brought by an individual; allowing the Commission to intervene or stop someone acting illegally in a campaign if they live outside the UK
  • Political advertising should be publicly accessible in a searchable repository identifying who paid and sponsored the campaigns and who was targeted
  • digital literacy should be a fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths. 

The full Report can be found on the Parliament website.