Facebook is a law-breaking “digital gangster,” UK government report says

Facebook yesterday said it is willing to face “meaningful regulation” after UK lawmakers accused the company of acting like a “digital gangster” that has knowingly violated laws and helped spread Russian misinformation during elections.

A House of Commons committee that oversees media policy chastised Facebook in a report on “disinformation and ‘fake news.


“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 report said.

“Facebook’s handling of personal data, and its use for political campaigns, are prime and legitimate areas for inspection by regulators, and it should not be able to evade all editorial responsibility for the content shared by its users across its platforms,” the report also said.

In response, Facebook said that it “share[s] the committee’s concerns about false news and election integrity and are pleased to have made a significant contribution to their investigation over the past 18 months, answering more than 700 questions and with four of our most senior executives giving evidence,” according to the BBC.

Facebook praised itself for recent changes it has made, but the company said it’s willing to face tougher laws. Facebook’s statement continued:

We are open to meaningful regulation and support the committee’s recommendation for electoral law reform. But we’re not waiting. We have already made substantial changes so that every political ad on Facebook has to be authorized, state who is paying for it and then is stored in a searchable archive for seven years. No other channel for political advertising is as transparent and offers the tools that we do.

Committee Chair Damian Collins, a member of Parliament from the Conservative Party, said that Facebook did not fully cooperate with the investigation.

“We believe that in its evidence to the committee, Facebook has often deliberately sought to frustrate our work, by giving incomplete, disingenuous and at times misleading answers to our questions,” Collins said, according to the BBC.

Russian interference in elections

The report accused Facebook executives of misleading the committee about Russian groups placing political ads in other countries. Facebook Policy Director Simon Milner told the committee in February 2018 that there hadn’t been evidence of such activity “in the last general election, during the Brexit vote or during the 2015 general election,” the report said. Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer told the committee that in the 2016 US presidential election, “We were slow to understand the impact of [Russian interference] at the time.”

But a article published in November 2018 and evidence gathered by the committee show that those statements were not true, the UK report said.

“[W]e believe that Facebook knew that there was evidence of overseas interference and that Mr Milner misled us when he gave evidence in February 2018,” the report said. “We are left with the impression that either Simon Milner and Mike Schroepfer deliberately misled the Committee or they were deliberately not briefed by senior executives at Facebook about the extent of Russian interference in foreign elections.”

The report recommended an investigation into recent UK elections “to explore what actually happened with regard to foreign influence, disinformation, funding, voter manipulation, and the sharing of data.” The government should also review its regulation of political funding from abroad “to ensure that foreign interference in UK elections, in the form of donations, cannot happen,” the report said. “We also need to be clear that Facebook, and all platforms, have a responsibility to comply with the law and not to facilitate illegal activity.”

Facebook “knowingly violated” privacy laws

Evidence examined by the UK lawmakers included documents provided by app maker Six4Three, which had sued Facebook in a California county court.

“The evidence that we obtained from the Six4Three court documents indicates that Facebook was willing to override its users’ privacy settings in order to transfer data to some app developers, to charge high prices in advertising to some developers, for the exchange of that data, and to starve some developers—such as Six4Three—of that data, thereby causing them to lose their business,” the UK report said. “It seems clear that Facebook was, at the very least, in violation of its Federal Trade Commission settlement.”

That last sentence refers to Facebook’s 2011 agreement with the FTC, which required Facebook to get consumers’ express consent before making changes that override their privacy settings. The FTC is also investigating Facebook over possible breaches of the settlement and could require a multi-billion dollar fine.

“From the documents we received from Six4Three, it is evident that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws,” the UK report said. “The ICO [Information Commissioner’s Office] should carry 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.”

Another damning statement from the report reads as follows:

Despite specific requests, Facebook has not provided us with one example of a business excluded from its platform because of serious data breaches. We believe that is because it only ever takes action when breaches become public. We consider that data transfer for value is Facebook’s business model and that Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that “we’ve never sold anyone’s data” is simply untrue.”

The report recommended “a comprehensive audit of the operation of the advertising market on social media” and said the government “should also investigate whether Facebook specifically has been involved in any anti-competitive practices and conduct a review of Facebook’s business practices towards other developers, to decide whether Facebook is unfairly using its dominant market position in social media to decide which businesses should succeed or fail.”

In the US, senators recently asked Facebook to explain why the social network apparently “manipulated children into spending their parents’ money without permission” while playing games on Facebook. US lawmakers are also pressuring Facebook and Google to fight anti-vaccine misinformation.

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