Facebook regulation
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

A UK parliamentary committee report released yesterday brands Facebook a “digital gangster”, and is the strongest of increasing global calls to regulate the internet giants. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee report into disinformation and fake news, following the 2016 Brexit referendum, was highly critical of Facebook and its CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg for dodging questions about the company’s business practices.

While the committee was sitting, The Observer broke the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed how the company had used data from 50 million Facebook profiles to target advertising based on psychological profiles during the US election.

In a statement, committee chair Damian Collins said Facebook had “deliberately sought to frustrate our work” during its hearings:

The guiding principle of the ‘move fast and break things’ culture often seems to be that it is better to apologise than ask permission. 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.

The committee has called for a compulsory code of ethics for tech companies, overseen by a regulator that has the power to prosecute companies that breach it, reform of electoral communication laws, and for social media companies to be obliged to take down harmful content including disinformation.

The new regulations would also allow people to see more detail on who had paid for and made political ads, and check what data tech companies had on them.

The extraordinarily critical report is just one of many calls from around the world for more regulation of Facebook — something the company for the most part rejects.

Global head of algorithm policy Andy O’Donnell has been on a short visit to Sydney this week, giving journalists a background-only briefing and telling The Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday that governments shouldn’t tinker with what Facebook users see in their news feeds. “It’s important that people be in control of their personal technology use and so I am concerned about the idea of a government body in particular telling people what they can and can’t see on social media,” he said.

In Australia, the body representing commercial television networks, Free TV, has come out in support of calls for more regulation of Facebook and Google. In a statement published on Monday, the organisation said it supported more regulation of the internet giants, including forcing them to be more transparent about their content algorithms and advertising rates.

It echoes the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission’s digital platforms inquiry preliminary report, which suggested an independent body which is able to require Facebook and Google provide information on their algorithms.

Facebook vice president of APAC policy Simon Milner, has also rejected any government regulation, writing in a blog post on Monday that the ACCC’s suggestion of an algorithm regulator was not appropriate:

The ACCC has not made a case or provided any evidence for why they believe an algorithm regulator is a necessary, effective and proportionate response to the business model challenges facing news media. More importantly, people, not regulators, should decide what they see in their news feeds.

Free TV has also called for a tax offset for costs associated with producing news content, and a review of election communication laws that prevent advertising in the days immediately before an election.

Meanwhile, in India, the government has proposed wide-ranging powers that would allow it to demand companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter remove posts that it says are libelous, invade privacy, or are hateful or deceptive. The laws would also weaken encrypted messaging services including Facebook-owned WhatsApp.

German regulators are trying to stop Facebook merging data it collects from users on Facebook with data from their other services including Instagram and WhatsApp, and also introduced hate speech laws in 2018 that could land social media companies fines of up to €50 million if they don’t remove potentially illegal material within 24 hours of being notified.

France also has regulators meeting regularly with Facebook executives to deal with hate speech on the platform in the lead-up to the European Parliament elections.

Are growing calls for Facebook’s regulation fair? If so, what could be done in Australia? Write to [email protected] with your full name to let us know your thoughts.

Peter Fray

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