MPs call for compulsory tech code of ethics

Written by Peter Walker
18/02/19

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee has published its final report on disinformation and ‘fake news’, calling for a Compulsory Code of Ethics for tech companies overseen by an independent regulator.

The report also suggested that this regulator should be given powers to launch legal action against companies breaching the code, along with demanding that social media companies be obliged to take down known sources of harmful content.

In terms of electoral law, the committee stated that the government must make reforms, citing overseas involvement in UK elections, branding the current setup “not fit for purpose” and accusing Facebook of intentionally and knowingly violating both data privacy and anti-competition laws.

Damian Collins, chair of the DCMS Committee said: “Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources, delivered through the major social media platforms we use everyday.

“Much of this is directed from agencies working in foreign countries, including Russia,” he continued.

“The big tech companies are failing in the duty of care they owe to their users to act against harmful content, and to respect their data privacy rights – 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.”

Collins stated that the major tech companies are well aware of these issues, yet they continually fail to address them.

“We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people, the age of inadequate self-regulation must come to an end,” he said, adding: “The rights of the citizen need to be established in statute, by requiring the tech companies to adhere to a code of conduct written into law by parliament, and overseen by an independent regulator.”

This final report repeats a number of recommendations from the interim report published last summer, including for clear legal liabilities to be established for tech companies to act against harmful or illegal content on their sites, and the report calls for a compulsory Code of Ethics defining what constitutes harmful content.

Companies failing obligations on harmful or illegal content would face hefty fines. MPs concluded: “Social media companies cannot hide behind the claim of being merely a ‘platform’ and maintain that they have no responsibility themselves in regulating the content of their sites.”

The report highlighted Facebook documents obtained by the Committee and published in December 2018 relating to a Californian court case brought by app developer Six4Three. It found evidence that the company was willing to: override its users' privacy settings in order to transfer data to some app developers; charge high prices in advertising to some developers, for the exchange of data, and starve some developers of that data.

The committee recommended that the Information Commissioner’s Officer (ICO) carries out a detailed investigation into the practices of the Facebook platform, its use of users' and users' friends' data, and the use of 'reciprocity' of the sharing of data.

The report also found evidence,supported by the findings of both the ICO and the Electoral Commission, of a ‘porous relationship’ between Arron Banks’ Eldon Insurance and Leave.EU, with no attempt to create a strict division between the two organisations, in breach of current data laws.

Evidence given to the committee shows that current electoral law is not fit for purpose, according to the report, in a failure to reflect the move away from billboards and leaflets to online micro-targeted campaigning.

“The Electoral Commission should be given more powers including the legal right to compel organisations they don’t regulate such as social media companies to provide information,” it read, adding that it should have the power to increase the size of fines to reflect a company’s turnover.

The committee called for tech companies to address the issue of shell companies attempting to hide their identity when buying political advertising in particular, with full disclosure of the use of targeting as part of a shift towards greater advertising transparency.