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British lawmakers accuse Facebook of failing to aid inquiry into 'fake news'

LONDON -- A closely watched British parliamentary committee examining Russia's exploitation of social media to try to influence elections has called for sweeping new regulations on tech companies, and it has accused Facebook of providing "disingenuous answers" to some questions while avoiding others "to the point of obstruction."

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British Lawmakers Accuse Facebook of Failing to Aid Inquiry Into ‘Fake News’
David D. Kirkpatrick
, New York Times

LONDON — A closely watched British parliamentary committee examining Russia’s exploitation of social media to try to influence elections has called for sweeping new regulations on tech companies, and it has accused Facebook of providing “disingenuous answers” to some questions while avoiding others “to the point of obstruction.”

A report from the House of Commons panel, which is investigating “fake news” on the internet, cited Facebook’s resistance to disclosing information as evidence of the need for more stringent rules to hold social media giants accountable for content.

“Facebook should not be in a position of marking its own homework,” the committee said, in a report scheduled for release on Sunday, arguing that Facebook’s resistance to providing information to Parliament “does not bode well for future transparency.”

The report is the latest indication that policymakers in Europe and North America are turning sharply more skeptical about the social media giants, once hailed as leaders of a revolution in free speech and human interaction.

The panel — the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee — collaborated with the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington, which on Friday announced that it would hold its own hearing in the coming week on foreign influence operations over social media.

“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,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee, said in an emailed statement.

The report and hearing come at a delicate moment for Facebook’s business, as a string of recent scandals involving the spread of misinformation or misuse of personal data are starting to damage the company’s growth in users and advertising. Facebook disclosed on Wednesday that its growth had slowed while it faced rising costs to try to repair its credibility, and the news pushed its stock down about 20 percent by the next day — shaving $120 billion off the value of the company.

Damian Collins, the chairman of the British parliamentary committee, said in a statement, “What we have discovered so far is the tip of the iceberg,” calling this “a watershed moment in terms of people realizing they themselves are the product, not just the user of a free service.”

Facebook’s problems began to increase when U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russians had used fake identities to spread propaganda over Facebook and other social media sites to try to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

That revelation was part of the impetus for the formation of the British parliamentary committee, which sought to determine whether Russia had applied similar efforts to sway the 2016 referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union, known as Brexit.

Moscow has long sought to weaken the European Union, and the committee’s report cited research showing that in the six months before the referendum in June 2016, the Kremlin’s English-language outlets, Sputnik and Russia Today, published 261 articles supporting Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc. Those articles then somehow reached more users on Twitter than the content produced by the two main campaigns for Brexit.

Yet the committee complained in its report that a lack of disclosure by the internet companies had thwarted its efforts to assess the extent of Russia’s potentially hidden efforts to use false identities or polarizing messages on social media sites to manipulate public opinion.

“Time and again, Facebook chose to avoid answering our written and oral questions,” the report noted.

“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,” the report said, describing “a disconnect between the government’s expressed concerns about foreign interference in elections, and tech companies intractability in recognizing the issue.”

Officials at Facebook and Twitter, who were not immediately available for comment, have said that they cooperated fully with the committees, suggesting that British intelligence agencies failed to provide the kind of information about fake Russian accounts that enabled the companies to disclose more about the U.S. case.

Most worrisome for the internet companies, however, are the committee’s recommendations to impose stricter regulations, disclosure requirements and penalties on the social media companies. The committee said the British government was expected to lay out proposals for a new regulation framework later this year. It not yet clear how much influence the committee’s recommendations may have on that process. European and American lawmakers have long treated the social media networks as passive platforms for content shared by users, and the laws have largely shielded the companies from liabilities for defamation, privacy violations, copyright infringement and other issues — protections that advocates for the companies say are essential to their business model.

The committee urged an end to that impunity, arguing that the companies in fact have control and thus responsibility for their content.

“Social media companies cannot hide behind the claim of being merely a ‘platform,'” the report asserted. “That is not the case; they continually change what is and is not seen on their sites, based on algorithms and human intervention.”

Among other proposals, the committee called for the regulators who oversee television and radio to set standards for accuracy and impartiality on social media sites, for the establishment of a “working group of experts” to rate the credibility of websites or accounts “so that people can see at first glance the level of verification,” and for a new tax on internet companies that would pay for expanded oversight.

To address influence campaigns, the committee called for the mandatory public disclosure of the sponsors behind any online political advertisement or paid communication, as required in traditional news media outlets — an idea that was proposed in Congress as well. The committee also noted that British law currently caps fines for election-law violations at a maximum of 20,000 British pounds, which would be almost meaningless for an internet giant. The committee suggested setting the maximum fine at a fixed percentage of a company’s revenue. For a company like Facebook, that could be a much more threatening penalty.

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