Facebook Under Fire from British Lawmakers

Policymakers worldwide show no signs of letting up their increased scrutiny of Facebook. A British parliamentary committee investigating Russian election influencing campaigns has recommended sweeping regulations on tech companies, while accusing the social media giant of being disingenuous or outright obstructing lines of questioning.

“Facebook should not be in a position of marking its own homework,” said the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the report, a collaboration with the United States’ Senate Intelligence Committee. The group also expressed concern that Facebook’s track record did not bode well for future transparency.

The findings are the latest salvo against Facebook from lawmakers around the world, whose hands-off approach towards the social media giant looks to be a thing of the past. A handful of high-profile scandals have shaken the company, who were once considered to be revolutionaries fundamentally changing the way humanity communicates and interacts.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat in the Senate Intelligence Committee, was frank about the need for change, saying in a statement that “the threat posed by this challenge is not just an American problem – it is one that confronts all free societies, and we need to work together to ensure we are protecting our democracy.”

How did we get to this point, and what will these supposed ‘protections’ look like?

Scandals and Subpar Cooperation

The aforementioned report is the latest in a string of rebukes from governing bodies and citizens alike against Facebook’s perceived negligence on various issues. The Cambridge Analytica scandal from March 2018 cast an unwelcome spotlight on the platform, after revelations that the company had allowed the collection and sale of data for 87 million users without their consent.

The spotlight continued to grow as American intelligence agencies concluded that Russian operatives used fake accounts to spread propaganda on the platform during the 2016 presidential election. That revelation led to the creation of the parliamentary committee, designed to investigate similar influence campaigns for the 2016 Brexit referendum as part of the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to weaken the European Union.

Damian Collins, chairman of the British parliamentary committee, called the discoveries “the tip of the iceberg…a watershed moment in terms of people realizing they themselves are the product, not just the user of a free service.” The report also expressed the committee’s displeasure at the lack of disclosure from Facebook and Twitter, who “time and again…chose to avoid answering our written and oral questions,” making it difficult to determine the extent of the manipulation efforts.

“There has been a continual reluctance on the part of Facebook to conduct its own research on whether its organization has been used by Russia to influence others,” continued the report, while describing “a disconnect between the government’s expressed concerns about foreign interference in elections, and tech companies’ intractability in recognizing the issue.”

What Happens Next?

Officials at Facebook and Twitter maintained they had fully cooperated with the committees, but the pressure has not lessened. Amid coverage of the scandals and a report of slower growth and rising costs as the company looked to restore its credibility, Facebook lost $120 billion – or 20 percent of its value – in a single day. While it has since recovered to an extent, the looming specter of stricter regulations, disclosure requirements, and more-substantial penalties remains.

Facebook has maintained that they are not liable for defamation, copyright infringement, privacy violations, and other misbehavior on the platform – they simply provide the structure for other people to do as they please (to an extent). But the passivity that historically drove the relationship between social media companies and lawmakers in Europe and North America’s is coming to an end.

Policymakers will propose a new regulatory framework later this year, possibly taking the committee’s recommendations into account. They also made clear that “social media companies cannot hide behind the claim of being merely a ‘platform’” anymore.“They continually change what is and is not seen on their sites, based on algorithms and human intervention,” said the report, and therefore have responsibility for the content posted there.

The committee offered multiple suggestions for lawmakers to consider: that television and radio regulators also set the standards for social media sites; that a group of experts rate the credibility of accounts and websites; that internet companies be taxed to pay for increases in in oversight.
Echoing their counterparts in America, the committee demanded mandatory public disclosure of political ad sponsors, ala traditional news outlets. There is also talk of removing the 20,000 British pound cap on election-law violations, instead setting fines based on fixed percentages of a company’s revenue – a significant penalty.

However the new regulations shake out, lawmakers around the world have sent a clear message: they will be more hands-on when it comes to overseeing technology companies. Facebook has begun to make changes in response to the myriad controversies, but the biggest are yet to come – and they will be orders, not suggestions.

Quandary Peak Research

Based in Los Angeles, Quandary Peak Research provides software litigation consulting and expert witness services. We rapidly analyze large code bases, design documents, performance and usage statistics, and other data to answer technical questions about the structure and behavior of software systems.

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