Social media platforms are behaving like “digital gangsters” and should be forced to comply with a regulated code of ethics to tackle harmful or illegal content on their sites, a Commons committee has demanded.
In a major report, MPs also warned that democracy is at risk from the “malicious and relentless” targeting of citizens with disinformation and adverts from unidentifiable sources, as they called for reform to electoral communication laws.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee singled out Facebook for criticism, accusing it of being “unwilling to be accountable to regulators”, and rounded on its chief Mark Zuckerberg, who was accused of showing “contempt” towards the committee by choosing not to appear before it last year.
The report said: “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 also said ethics guidelines are needed to set out what is and what is not acceptable on social media, including harmful and illegal content that has been referred to the platforms by users or identified by the companies.
If tech firms fail to meet their obligations under the code, then an independent regulator should be able to launch legal proceedings against them and have the power to issue large fines, the MPs said.
They wrote: “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.”
In response, Facebook’s UK public policy manager Karim Palant said: “We share 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.
“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 authorised, 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.
“We also support effective privacy legislation that holds companies to high standards in their use of data and transparency for users.
“While we still have more to do, we are not the same company we were a year ago. We have tripled the size of the team working to detect and protect users from bad content to 30,000 people and invested heavily in machine learning, artificial intelligence and computer vision technology to help prevent this type of abuse.”
In the last year Facebook has come under intense pressure over some of its business practices, following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a series of data breaches and concerns over fake news and other content on the site.
The committee’s final report into disinformation and fake news also said electoral law was “not fit for purpose” and should be updated to reflect the move to “microtargeted” online political campaigning.
They called for a comprehensive review of the current rules and regulations surrounding political work during elections and referenda, and separately urged the Government to put pressure on social media companies to publicise instances of disinformation.
Ministers were also asked to reveal how many investigations are being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics.
The report is the latest attempt to crack down on social media networks, and follows accusations from digital minister Margot James that some firms show little regard for the security and safety of some of their more vulnerable users.
The issue has come under increased focus following the case of schoolgirl Molly Russell, who took her life aged 14, after her family found material relating to depression and suicide when they looked at her Instagram account following her death.
The Government is expected to publish a white paper later this year on proposals to reform laws to make the internet and social media safer.
Tory MP and committee chairman Damian Collins 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 every day. Much of this is directed from agencies working in foreign countries, including Russia.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
Shadow culture secretary Tom Watson said: “Labour agrees with the committee’s ultimate conclusion: The era of self-regulation for tech companies must end immediately. We need new independent regulation with a tough powers and sanctions regime to curb the worst excesses of surveillance capitalism and the forces trying to use technology to subvert our democracy.
“Few individuals have shown contempt for our parliamentary democracy in the way Mark Zuckerberg has. If one thing is uniting politicians of all colours during this difficult time for our country, it is our determination to bring him and his company into line.”
A Government spokesman said: “This week the Culture Secretary will travel to the United States to meet with tech giants including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple to discuss many of these issues.
“We welcome this report’s contribution towards our work to tackle the increasing threat of disinformation and to make the UK the safest place to be online. We will respond in due course.”
Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner, said: “We’re pleased with the committee’s support of our recommendation for a statutory code that will clarify how personal data should be used during political campaigning. The ICO’s investigations into these areas continue and we’ll be reviewing the full report with interest.”