The UK government has published a damning report on the spread of disinformation on Facebook and other social media services, in which the company and its executives are accused of operating like 'digital gangsters'.

In a report published following an 18-month investigation into accusations that Facebook had been used to spread disinformation with a material effect on various political movements from the US presidential elections to the vote for the UK to leave the European Union, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) pulls few punches. '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 report reads. 'It is evident that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws. The ICO [Information Commissioner's Office] 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.

'Despite specific requests, Facebook has not provided us with one example of a business excluded from its platform because of serious data breaches. We believe that is because it only ever takes action when breaches become public. We consider that data transfer for value is Facebook's business model and that Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that "we've never sold anyone's data" is simply untrue.'

The report, written by a group led by Damian Collins MP, leans heavily on internal documentation obtained from US software development company Six4Three back in November 2018, published publicly in December.

The report accuses Facebook co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg of contempt of Parliament for ignoring multiple demands to give evidence as part of the investigation into the Cambridge Analytica scandal, makes bold claims regarding the fitness for purpose of UK electoral law in the face of interference from hostile nations, and seeks the formation of an independent investigatory group which would have as its remit the potential of 'foreign influence, disinformation, funding, voter manipulation and the sharing of data' having influenced the 2014 Scottish independence, 2016 European Union membership referendum, and 2017 general election voting.

The same report also threatens to put the onus of policing these platforms firmly on the social media companies themselves. 'Social media companies cannot hide behind the claim of being merely a "platform" and maintain that they have no responsibility themselves in regulating the content of their sites,' the report reads. 'We repeat the recommendation from our Interim Report that a new category of tech company is formulated, which tightens tech companies' liabilities, and which is not necessarily either a "platform" or a "publisher". This approach would see the tech companies assume legal liability for content identified as harmful after it has been posted by users.

'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. Such a Code of Ethics should be similar to the Broadcasting Code issued by Ofcom - which is based on the guidelines established in section 319 of the 2003 Communications Act. The Code of Ethics should be developed by technical experts and overseen by the independent regulator, in order to set down in writing what is and is not acceptable on social media. This should include harmful and illegal content that has been referred to the companies for removal by their users, or that should have been easy for tech companies themselves to identify.'

The report is available from Parliament now (PDF warning), while a summary of its conclusions and recommendations is also available in HTML form.

In a statement to press following the publication of the report, a spokesperson claimed the company was 'open to meaningful regulation and support the committee's recommendation for electoral law reform' and that 'we are not the same company we were a year ago'

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October 14 2021 | 15:04