UK report: Facebook should be regulated

A damning report from British Parliament was released over the weekend that minces no words about how it feels in regards to Facebook: the country wants it to be regulated, investigated for antitrust and recommends major law changes to block any similar technology being implemented in the future.

The report spans over 100 pages, and examines how the company has abused user privacy, failed to take action, perpetuated the spread of fake news, and much, much more. Even the opening summary shows that the government isn't here to mess about:

The big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint
or proper regulatory oversight. But only governments and the law are powerful enough
to contain them. The legislative tools already exist. They must now be applied to digital activity, using tools such as privacy laws, data protection legislation, antitrust 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.

It's genuinely interesting reading, and the recommendations are broad:

  • Technology companies should not be allowed to hide behind the excuse that they are "platforms" and that users are responsible for their content. Instead, the report recommends forcing liability for user content onto technology companies.
  • A¬†new entity should be created to oversee technology companies operating in the UK, and that engineers within a company should be able to be held liable when harmful content is distributed using tools they create.
  • The new entity should¬†have access to companies security mechanisms and algorithms¬†to ensure they are operating "responsibly" (Er, this seems ill-advised!).
  • A 2% tax should be placed on any technology company operating in the UK, due to the cost of managing them at the ICO, and the new responsibilities it finds itself with.
  • The antitrust authorities in the UK (CMA) should immediately audit the operation of advertising in social media, and investigate Facebook along with others.
  • The UK should examine its existing laws to change how political advertising may be used, and move to control (or at least monitor) unpaid campaigns, Facebook Groups and more. It explicitly says that "electoral law is not fit for purpose" and needs serious changes.
  • A¬†call for reviewing anonymous online campaigns, and ensuring that covert parties can't influence elections from overseas or otherwise.
  • A¬†requirement for social networks to give labels to "quality journalism" and other, lower-quality sites. It's¬†really¬†unclear how this would be implemented, or how.
  • Mark Zuckerberg has shown "contempt"¬†against the UK parliament by ignoring constant requests to appear,¬†and that should be taken as a serious consideration moving into decisions about how to regulate.

It's a heavy set of recommendations that even goes beyond this boil-down. If anything, the report may have implications in the wider technology industry, which may find itself now held accountable to a much higher degree in the future. 

The idea of holding engineers responsible for the products they build is relatively new, but may make individuals more empowered to build controls in from the start for users, rather than hack them in later. Australia's government made similar moves with its new laws concerning encryption, which require engineers to build secret software backdoors into their software when asked, and it's difficult to know how these types of laws could be implemented.

Headlines all over the media this weekend focused on how the report labeled Facebook as a 'digital gangster,' but the clicky headlines mean the effect of this report is lost on most: how this will transform the industry globally is hard to know, but it's going to send shockwaves if fully implemented.

From here, the next steps are somewhat unclear: the UK has implemented some of the recommendations already such as fining Facebook for its conduct, but much of the action now rests on the British parliament to follow through on. Unfortunately, they're also trying to wade through Brexit right now, which is likely to be something of a distraction.

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