• Compulsory Code of Ethics for tech companies overseen by independent regulator
• Regulator given powers to launch legal action against companies breaching code
• Government to reform current electoral communications laws and rules on overseas involvement in UK elections
• Social media companies obliged to take down known sources of harmful content, including proven sources of disinformation
Further finds that:
• Electoral law ‘not fit for purpose’
• Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws
This Final Report on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’ repeats a number of recommendations from the interim report published last summer. The Committee calls for the Government to reconsider a number of recommendations to which it did not respond and to include concrete proposals for action in its forthcoming White Paper on online harms.
Independent regulation of social media companies.
The Report repeats a recommendation from the Interim Report for clear legal liabilities to be established for tech companies to act against harmful or illegal content on their sites, and the report calls for a compulsory Code of Ethics defining what constitutes harmful content. An independent regulator should be responsible for monitoring tech companies, backed by statutory powers to launch legal action against companies in breach of the code.
Companies failing obligations on harmful or illegal content would face hefty fines. MPs conclude: “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’s recommendation chimes with recent statements by Ministers indicating the Government is prepared to regulate social media companies following the death of teenager Molly Russell. The Committee hopes to see firm recommendations for legislation in the White Paper to create a regulatory system for online content that is as effective as that for offline content.
It repeats its recommendation for new independent regulation to be funded by a levy on tech companies operating in the UK.
Data use and data targeting
The Report highlights Facebook documents obtained by the Committee and published in December 2018 relating to a Californian court case brought by app developer Six4Three. Through scrutiny of internal Facebook emails between 2011 and 2015, the Report finds evidence to indicate that the company was willing to: override its users’ privacy settings in order to transfer data to some app developers; to charge high prices in advertising to some developers, for the exchange of data, and starve some developers—such as Six4Three—of that data, contributing to them losing their business. MPs conclude: “It is evident that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws.”
The Committee has published more evidence ( https://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/culture-media-and-sport/Further-selected-documents-ordered-from-Six4Three-Feb19.pdf ( PDF 9.09 MB) – see footnotes) from the Six4Three documents today that demonstrate Facebook’s aggressive action against certain apps and highlights the link between Friends’ data and the financial value of the developers’ relationship with Facebook.
It recommends that the ICO carries 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 CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) should conduct a comprehensive audit of the advertising market on social media and investigate whether Facebook has been involved in anti-competitive practices.
MPs note that Facebook, in particular, is unwilling to be accountable to regulators around the world: “By choosing not to appear before the Committee and by choosing not to respond personally to any of our invitations, Mark Zuckerberg has shown contempt towards both our Committee and the ‘International Grand Committee’ involving members from nine legislators from around the world.”
The Report finds evidence supported by the findings of both the ICO and the Electoral Commission of a ‘porous relationship’ between Arron Banks’ Eldon Insurance and Leave.EU with no attempt to create a strict division between the two organisations, in breach of current laws. As set out in the Interim Report, Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore showed complete disregard and disdain for the parliamentary process, when they appeared as witnesses.
It concludes: “It is now evident that they gave misleading evidence to the Committee in June 2018 about the working relationship between Eldon Insurance and Leave.EU.”
The Report contains details of work commissioned by the Committee into insecure data found on the AIQ website. The Committee believes that analysis of data stored in a vast repository is evidence that AIQ collected, stored and shared data belonging to UK citizens in the context of its work on the EU referendum.
The Committee concludes: “AIQ worked on both the US Presidential primaries and for Brexit-related organisations, including the designated Vote Leave group, during the EU Referendum. The work of AIQ highlights the fact that data has been and is still being used extensively by private companies to target people, often in political context, in order to influence their decisions.”
Electoral law not fit for purpose
The ICO identified a “disturbing disregard for voters’ personal privacy” in the use of data analytics in political campaigns, with investigations also carried out by the Electoral Commission.
Evidence given to the Committee shows that current electoral law is not fit for purpose. It has failed to reflect a move away from billboards and leaflets to online micro-targeted campaigning. The Report calls for absolute transparency of political campaigning, with clear banners on all paid-for political advertisements and videos, identifying the source and the advertiser. It would be backed by a legal definition of digital campaigning and online political advertising, repeating a recommendation of the Interim Report. The impact of social media must be taken into account: “There also needs to be an acknowledgement of the role and power of unpaid campaigns and Facebook Groups that influence elections and referendums (both inside and outside the designated period).”
The Electoral Commission should be given more powers including the legal right to compel organisations they don’t regulate such as social media companies to provide information. It should have the power to increase the size of fines to reflect a company’s turnover.
On the issue of overseas interference in elections, the Electoral Commission should have the power to intervene or stop someone acting illegally in a campaign if they live outside the UK.
The Report highlights Mainstream Network, a pro-Brexit website operating on Facebook, which the Committee discovered was targeting advertisements at specific constituents to encourage them to send standard emails to their MP. The Committee questioned Richard Allan, Facebook Vice President of Policy Solutions, about the organisation behind the apparent anonymity of Mainstream Network with an advertising spend estimated at more than £250,000. The Committee is still awaiting information promised by Richard Allan. The reports notes: “We consider Facebook’s response generally to be disingenuous and is another example of Facebook’s bad faith.”
The Committee is calling for tech companies to address the issue of shell companies attempting to hide identity in buying political advertising in particular, with full disclosure of the use of targeting as part of advertising transparency.
Foreign Influence in Political Campaigns
The Committee finds strong evidence pointing to hostile state actors influencing democratic processes. While the UK Government has accepted evidence of Russian activity in the Skripal poisoning case it has been reluctant to accept evidence of interference in the 2016 UK Referendum.
In calling for action the Report finds: “The UK is clearly vulnerable to covert digital influence campaigns and the Government should be conducting analysis to understand the extent of the targeting of voters, by foreign players, during past elections.” The Government should consider whether current legislation to protect the electoral process from malign influence is sufficient. Legislation should be explicit on the illegal influencing of the democratic process by foreign players. The Committee urges the Government to respond in its White Paper.
Facebook and Russian Disinformation
The Committee has repeatedly asked Facebook in written correspondence and oral evidence about Russian activity on Facebook and knowledge of Russian advertisements that ran during the presidential election in America in 2016. The New York Times reported in November 2018 that Facebook had discovered Russian-linked activity on its site in 2016, attempting to disrupt the US election.
MPs conclude that two senior executives from Facebook who appeared as witnesses left them with the impression they had “deliberately misled the Committee or they were deliberately not briefed by senior executives at Facebook, about the extent of Russian interference in foreign elections”.
Leave.EU, Arron Banks, US and Russia
The Interim Report flagged concerns over the source of a donation to the Leave campaign by Arron Banks, alleged to be the largest donation to a political campaign in British history. The Committee welcomes action by the Electoral Commission and the National Crime Agency following the Committee’s recommendation to pursue investigations into the source of the donation.
The Report is calling for urgent action to address election rules around overseas spending: “We recommend that, at the earliest opportunity, the Government reviews the current rules on overseas involvement in our UK elections to ensure that foreign interference in UK elections, in the form of donations, cannot happen.”
Facebook and all platforms should be clear that they have a responsibility to comply with the law and not facilitate illegal activity.
The Committee repeats its recommendation made in the Interim Report for the Government to make a statement about the number of investigations being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics. The Government should also launch an independent investigation into past elections, including the UK 2017 general election, the UK 2016 referendum and the Scottish referendum of 2014, with regard to foreign influence, disinformation, funding, voter manipulation and the sharing of data to enable appropriate changes to the law to be made.
SCL Elections and Cambridge Analytica
The Interim Report flagged concerns that SCL Elections and associated companies, including Cambridge Analytica, worked on campaigns that raised concerns over transparency and legal and ethical boundaries. The Interim Report stated that “SCL Group and associated companies have gone into administration, but other companies are carrying out similar work. Many of the individuals involved in SCL and Cambridge Analytica appear to have moved onto new corporate vehicles”. This Report repeats the recommendation that the National Crime Agency should investigate the connections between the company SCL Elections Ltd and Emerdata Ltd, if it had not already done so.
The Report urges a review of self-regulation for the strategic communications industry on whether new regulation is necessary to curb bad behaviour in the industry.