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Facebook, social media companies branded 'digital gangsters' by UK committee

A Parliament report on fake news condemns Mark Zuckerberg's "contempt" toward the UK and other countries around the world.

British politicians accused Facebook of knowingly and intentionally violating data privacy and antitrust law in a damning report into fake news published late Sunday.

The report (PDF) says tech and social media companies should be forced to comply with a compulsory code of ethics overseen by an independent regulator, which should have powers to take legal action against companies breaching the code.

"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 said.

The UK call for an independent regulator comes as countries around the world grapple with proposals to rein in 15-year-old Facebook specifically and social media more broadly amid concerns about misinformation, hate speech and election interference. Earlier this month, Germany's anti-trust regulator ordered the world's largest social network to stop combining data from the Facebook accounts of its German users with information it collects about them from other sites unless they give their OK. In the US, the Government Accountability Office, the federal government's chief auditor, recommended that Congress consider legislation along the lines of the EU's General Data Protection Regulation to protect the privacy of consumers internet data.

The recommendation was included in a 56-page report (PDF) issued Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office,

The report comes as a result of an inquiry conducted last year by Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee into fake news and the spread of disinformation. When the revelations about the data consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica gaining access to millions of Facebook users' data came to light in March 2018, the committee looked closely at the social network's role in the scandal.

In the course of its investigations, the committee examined the ways in which Facebook might have impacted the outcome of elections, including possible Russian interference, ad targeting and access to user data that violated the privacy rights of users.

The report concluded that current electoral law is not fit for purpose in the digital age, leaving democracy at risk from online threats and that regulating social media will help curb these risks. It also reiterated a previous recommendation from earlier in the inquiry 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," the report said.

In the document the committee directly condemned some of Facebook's policies and practices -- in particular the way in which it prevented some smaller companies from accessing data, effectively killing their business.

"Companies like Facebook exercise massive market power, which enables them to make money by bullying the smaller technology companies and developers who rely on this platform to reach their customers." said Damian Collins, chair of the DCMS Committee in a statement. "The guiding principle of the 'move fast and break things' culture often seems to be that it is better to apologise than ask permission."

Facebook rejected the committee's claims that it breached antitrust and data privacy laws and said it had found no evidence of coordinated foreign interference on Facebook during the Brexit referendum.

Karim Palant, UK public policy manager at Facebook, pointed to changes that Facebook has made over the past 12 months, including new rules about how it authorizes political ads and the tripling in size of the team working to detect and protect users from bad content.

"No other channel for political advertising is as transparent and offers the tools that we do," he said. "While we still have more to do, we are not the same company we were a year ago."

Zuck's 'contempt' for Parliament

On multiple occasions throughout 2018, the committee invited company CEO Mark Zuckerberg to give evidence in person or via video link. But representatives for Zuckerberg rebuffed every invitation, including one from the International Grand Committee investigating fake news, made up of representatives from nine countries across the world, which met in Parliament last November.

Instead, other Facebook executives, including CTO Mike Schroefper and VP of Public Policy for Europe Richard Allan (who also sits in Parliament's House of Lords), appeared in his place.

DCMS Hold Select Committee on Fake News And Disinformation

A protester wearing a model head of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg poses for media outside Parliament on Nov. 27, 2018 in London.

Jack Taylor/Getty Images

"We share the committee's concerns about false news and election integrity and are pleased to have made a significant contribution to their investigation over the past 18 months, answering more than 700 questions and with four of our most senior executives giving evidence," said Palant.

But the politicians responsible for questioning the Facebook executives had a different view of the Facebook executives' performances as witnesses in the inquiry. During questioning, they consistently expressed their dismay at Facebook's inability to provide full, clear answers.

"We believe that in its evidence to the committee, Facebook has often deliberately sought to frustrate our work, by giving incomplete, disingenuous and at times misleading answers to our questions," said Collins in a statement. The committee members speculated in the report that the Facebook executives who appeared before Parliament may have deliberately not been briefed on certain issues.

The report also described Zuckerberg as showing "contempt" towards the UK and the others legislators for his decision not to attend or respond to the invitations personally. Collins, who has led the calls for Zuckerberg to appear, was particularly outspoken on the CEO's decision to duck questioning:

"Even if Mark Zuckerberg doesn't believe he is accountable to the UK Parliament, he is to the billions of Facebook users across the world. Evidence uncovered by my committee shows he still has questions to answer yet he's continued to duck them, refusing to respond to our invitations directly or sending representatives who don't have the right information. Mark Zuckerberg continually fails to show the levels of leadership and personal responsibility that should be expected from someone who sits at the top of one of the world's biggest companies."

The committee has now officially concluded its inquiry, but Collins has made it clear on several occasions that he would still like to hear from Zuckerberg personally. If the CEO enters the UK, it's possible Parliament could issue a formal summons that would compel him to appear for questioning.

Facebook didn't respond specifically to comments about Zuckerberg's non-attendance at evidence sessions.

First published Feb. 17, 4:01 p.m. PT
Update, Feb. 18 at 10:11 a.m. PT: Adds background material.