A new report on disinformation and fake news published by the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee offers a scathing review of Facebook’s business practices and business model. At one point, in fact, the 111-page report refers to Facebook as “digital gangsters” for the way that the company has brazenly overstepped its business boundaries and refused to give a straightforward account of its business operations to top UK government officials.
Key findings of the report
In reviewing Facebook’s approach to date for dealing with disinformation and fake news, the report noted that “the age of inadequate self-regulation” needs to come to an end. Facebook has been given every opportunity to deal with fake news and disinformation, but at every turn, has either sidestepped making any major changes or simply continued on with business as usual. In fact, the modus operandi of Facebook appears to be to “maximize revenue at all costs,” even if those costs are user privacy and user trust.
In order to maximize revenues, the report notes, Facebook has turned a blind eye to disinformation and “dark adverts” coming from unidentifiable sources that might include large state actors such as Russia. In doing so, Facebook and other big tech companies have failed in their “duty of care.” In other words, Facebook has been hiding behind the mantra of “we’re just a platform” for too long, and needs to accept more responsibility for what type of content gets published to Facebook on a daily basis.
Where the report used its most critical language is when it assessed the role of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. According to the report, Mark Zuckerberg has failed to show levels of leadership and responsibility that would be expected from the head of a company with 2 billion users worldwide. In fact, Zuckerberg was called to task for enabling Facebook to behave in the same manner as “digital gangsters,” with rival companies repeatedly being threatened to have their data turned off if they failed to comply with Facebook demands.
While the report was originally launched in September 2017, it took on particular urgency in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in March 2018. At that time, news broke that Facebook had failed to clean up any of its data-sharing practices with third-party developers and had failed to abide by a regulatory consent agreement dating all the way back to 2011 that attempted to hold Facebook to account. From the perspective of the report’s authors, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was particularly embarrassing because it involved a UK company blatantly trading in personal data gleaned from Facebook in order to impact election results. This called into question not only the result of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but also all British elections dating back to 2014 (including the Brexit vote and the Scottish vote to leave the UK).
Key suggestions of the report
As a result of Facebook acting like digital gangsters, the report suggested that there needs to be a Compulsory Code of Ethics for big tech companies. This Code of Ethics would lay out all of the responsibilities of tech companies to deal with harmful (and illegal) content on their sites. The report characterized this content as the “malicious and relentless targeting of citizens.” This Code of Ethics would also hold tech companies to a much higher standard in terms of how they respond to requests from government and regulatory authorities.
For example, the report’s authors repeatedly suggested that Facebook gave “incomplete, disingenuous, and misleading answers” whenever possible, mostly to avoid any type of regulatory oversight. Moreover, whenever Mark Zuckerberg was asked to appear in person to describe the company’s business practices, he instead sent junior subordinates who were not able to give the depth and sophistication of answers needed to make an accurate assessment. Moreover, the report notes that this was almost done on purpose – to ensure that regulators could not really peer deep inside the company to figure out what was happening. The Chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Damian Collins, even said that Facebook (and more specifically, Mark Zuckerberg) should be held in “contempt” of Parliament and the UK’s parliamentary democracy.