Tech firms like Facebook should be made liable for “harmful and misleading” material on their websites and pay a levy so they can be regulated, British lawmakers said, warning of a crisis in democracy due to misuse of personal data.
Facebook has increasingly become a focus of the media committee’s inquiry into “fake news” after the data of 87 million users was improperly accessed by British-headquartered consultancy Cambridge Analytica.
The cost of higher privacy standards will hit Facebook’s profit margins for several years, the firm said on Wednesday, wiping over $120 billion US off its share price, and the company is coming under concerted regulatory scrutiny in Britain, the United States and the European Union.
“Companies like Facebook made it easy for developers to scrape user data and to deploy it in other campaigns without their knowledge or consent,” Damian Collins, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said in a statement.
“They must be made responsible, and liable, for the way in which harmful and misleading content is shared on their sites.”
The committee’s interim report and Collins’s comments were embargoed until July 29. Other news organizations broke the embargo after a copy of the report was published online by Dominic Cummings, who ran the officially designated Vote Leave campaign in the EU referendum.
Collins ripped Facebook for allowing Russian agencies to use its platform to spread disinformation and influence elections.
“I believe what we have discovered so far is the tip of the iceberg,” he said, adding that more work needs to be done to expose how fake accounts target people during elections. “The ever-increasing sophistication of these campaigns, which will soon be helped by developments in augmented reality technology, make this an urgent necessity.”
Augmented reality has the ability to show convincing audio or video of things that did not really happen, such as public figures saying things they did not actually say.
The standards of accuracy and impartiality which tech companies are held to could be based on regulator Ofcom’s rules for television and radio, the lawmakers said.
The committee began its work in January 2017, interviewing 61 witnesses during 20 hearings that took on an investigatory tone not normally found in such forums in the House of Commons.
The report criticized Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg for failing to appear before the panel and said his stand-ins were “unwilling or unable to give full answers to the committee’s questions.”
‘Our democracy is at risk’
One of the committee’s recommendations is that the era of light-touch regulation for social media must come to an end.
Social media companies can no longer avoid oversight by describing themselves as platforms, because they use technology to filter and shape the information users see. Nor are they publishers, since that model traditionally commissions and pays for content.
“We recommend 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,'” the report said. “We anticipate that the government will put forward these proposals in its White Paper later this year.”
The committee also said that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) needs more money so it can hire technical experts to be the “sheriff in the Wild West of the internet.” The funds would come from a levy on the tech companies, much in the same way as the banks pay for the upkeep of the Financial Conduct Authority.
The ICO earlier this month fined Facebook for the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016, has denied its work on the U.S. president’s election made use of the data in question.
“Our democracy is at risk, and now is the time to act, to protect our shared values and the integrity of our democratic institutions,” the committee said.