Tech giants should be regulated: ICO chief

Written by Hannah McGrath

Social media platforms such as Facebook and data handling firms like Cambridge Analytica have demonstrated a “disturbing lack of disrespect” for voters’ personal data and should be subject to a new regulatory model, the UK’s information commissioner has said.

In an appearance before MPs on the digital, culture, media and sport committee focussed on fake news, Elizabeth Denham said she had been “astounded” by the levels of data held by the likes of Facebook.

She called on the social media giant to “significantly change its business practices”, highlighting a “fundamental tension” between its business model and the need to protect users’ data privacy.

She also declared that the time for “self-regulation” amongst the world’s leading social media and tech giants was over. “That ship has sailed,” she said.

Denham floated the solution of a new regulatory model to deal with the problems of fake news, misinformation and harmful content. She laid out ideas for parliament to work with a hybrid regulator comprising the Information Commissioner’s Officer (ICO) and broadcast regulator Ofcom to develop a code of practice.

"No country has tried this yet. It's quite controversial and the need to balance freedom of expression with the harms of the internet is hard," she said.

An “ethical pause” would also be welcomed to consider rules around political advertising and its impact on the democratic process in future. "We have to ask whether the same model that sells us holidays, shoes and cars should be used to engage with voters" she added.

The ICO has the power to fine companies for personal data breaches and issue sanctions to those found to have fallen foul of beefed up data protection laws.

Last month the ICO imposed the maximum pre-General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) fine of £500,000 on Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In a discussion of Cambridge Analytica, which harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook users, Denham called for greater accountability among the chief executives of social media giants such as Facebook and Google.

While she declined to join MPs' calls for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to appear before parliament, she highlighted the critical importance of direct access to executives to the ICO’s inquiry into the data breach.

The ICO’s investigation into Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica breach was “unprecedented” in cost and complexity, she told MPs.

Damian Collins, chairman of the DCMS committee, said: "On Facebook, I welcome the information commissioner's comments that the platform needs to change and take much greater responsibility, and her call for Facebook to be subject to stricter regulation and oversight.”

Last month, the chancellor Philip Hammond used his Budget speech to take aim at the earnings of social media giants and big tech firms with the announcement of a digital services tax on UK revenues, aimed at raising £400 million a year.