UK MPs: Facebook ‘digital gangsters’ who spread fake news

LONDON • A scathing British parliamentary report yesterday branded Facebook “digital gangsters” who failed to fight the spread of fake news and violated data privacy.

Lawmakers’ 18-month investigation into technology companies and disinformation also accused the world’s largest social media platform of trying to hide the extent of Russian interference in foreign elections.

Facebook is coming under attack over its response to Russia’s alleged use of misleading stories and targeted ads to sway the 2016 US presidential election and a series of European votes.

Parliamentary committee chair Damian Collins said Facebook “deliberately sought to frustrate our work by giving incomplete, disingenuous and at times misleading answers to our questions”.

Facebook co-founder and chief Mark Zuckerberg turned down three requests to appear before the committee.

“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 108-page report said.

The committee urged a compulsory code of ethics for all tech companies that would be overseen by an independent UK regulator. It said Facebook should be obliged to take down “sources of harmful content”.

“We further recommend that the government launches an independent investigation into past elections — including the UK election of 2017, the UK Referendum of 2016 and the Scottish Referendum of 2014 — to explore what actually happened with regard to foreign influence,” the report said.

Facebook spokesman Karim Palant said executives at the California company “share the committee’s concerns about false news and election integrity”. “We are open to meaningful regulation and support the committee’s recommendation for electoral law reform,” Palant said in a statement released to AFP.

But Collins said Facebook has only adopted incremental policy changes that were mostly aimed at fending off regulation making it liable for the spread of malicious stories.

“They have taken a step, largely I think, to offset legislation,” Collins told BBC radio. “It shouldn’t be down to Zuckerberg to determine what the code is for election advertising in the UK through Facebook.”

The committee found that Facebook’s engineers had flagged potentially malicious Russian activity as early as 2014 — long before it became public.

Yesterday’s report said the two Facebook officials who did testify “deliberately misled the committee or they were delibe-rately not briefed by senior executives at Facebook about the extent of Russian interference in foreign elections”.

The committee further accused Facebook of offering Netflix and other popular apps preferential access to people’s data even after it had tightened its privacy rules.

The British government has eight weeks to respond to the parliamentary report. It is also expected to release a “white paper” next month that Collins said should form the basis for new legislation governing social media firms’ behaviour during election campaigns.

Collins said it is up to Parliament to determine what rules and punishments to impose.

“There should be clear legal penalties in place — they could be fines, they could be something more serious than that,” he told BBC radio. — AFP