Government brands Facebook 'digital gangsters' in damning report on fake news

Withering parliamentary report accuses Facebook of placing profit before people

Facebook has been accused of breaching privacy and competition laws in order to maximise profits from user data, according to a new government report.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee said that Facebook deliberately obstructed its inquiries during the 18-month investigation into its market dominance.

As a consequence, the exhaustive 108-page report recommends that tech and social media firms be subject to "independent regulation" in the form of a ‘code of ethics’ modeled on that overseen by Ofcom. In this way, Silicon Valley giants could be held accountable for harmful hosted content.

“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,” warned the committee’s chairman, Damian Collins.

This follows the failure of chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to give evidence in person, much to the annoyance of MPs.

“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."

The report, published today (18 February) also delved into Russian election meddling, directly accusing the country of consciously seeking to undermine western democracies via the propagation of fake news.

Warning that current systems are unfit for purpose, the report made a number of recommendations including a radical overhaul of electoral law in order to clearly define the funding sources of online political ads via a radical extension of the Electoral Commission’s power and remit.

The committee also called for an independent investigation into “foreign influence, disinformation, funding, voter manipulation and the sharing of data” in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 general election.

The investigation was launched in 2017, with Facebook facing further scrutiny in March the following year following the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

The committee said that this scandal would not have occurred had Facebook stuck to the terms of an agreement struck with US regulators in 2011 to limit developers’ access to user data. “The Cambridge Analytica scandal was facilitated by Facebook’s policies,” it said.

“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.

“Facebook continues to choose profit over data security, taking risks in order to prioritise their aim of making money from user data,” the report stated, accusing the company of covering up leaks of user data.

“It seems clear to us that Facebook acts only when serious breaches become public.”

Responding to the accusations Facebook’s head of UK public policy commented: “We share the committee’s concerns about false news and election integrity and are pleased to have made a significant contribution to their investigation over the past 18 months, answering more than 700 questions and with four of our most senior executives giving evidence."

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