Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated data privacy laws, says Government

The Government has observed that leading social media platforms such as Facebook have absolutely failed to prevent the dissemination of disinformation and fake news by foreign actors and that existing electoral regulations are hopelessly out of date for the internet age.

Be it the leaked Macron emails, a large number of news coloumns claiming that Europe's immigration policy has failed resoundingly, or that Brexit will usher in a new era for Britain, all such stories that are mostly well-disguised propaganda by foreign actors have more or less changed or distorted European politics and manipulated, if not endangered, democratic processes in European nations.

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While Britain is yet to come up with a concrete action plan for its post-Brexit future that could be agreeable to all citizens and politicians, the UK Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has noted with concern how the alarming spread of disinformation and fake news in the past few years have put democracy at great risk.

"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," said Damian Collins MP, Chair of the DCMS Committee.

Facebook did nothing to prevent disinformation and fake news

In its final report on disinformation and fake news, the committee squarely blamed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for not only preventing the dissemination of disinformation and fake news but also failing to respond to its queries on Facebook's conduct before, during and after the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal.

In November last year, after invoking a rare parliamentary mechanism, the Committee forced the founder of a technology firm names Six4Three LLC to hand over sensitive documents that proved that Facebook carried out mass surveillance on millions of users in a covert manner for years. The documents included "confidential emails and messages between Facebook senior executives".

Based on an analysis of the report, the Committee revealed on Monday that between 2011 and 2015, 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 data, and starve some developers—such as Six4Three—of that data, contributing to them losing their business," and through these actions, the company "intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws".

The Committee also accused Facebook CEO Zuckerberg of being unwilling to be accountable to regulators around the world and that he intentionally chose not to respond personally to repeated invitations from the Committee, showing contempt towards the Committee as well as the "'International Grand Committee' involving members from nine legislators from around the world."

"Even if Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t believe he is accountable to the UK Parliament, he is to the billions of Facebook users across the world. Evidence uncovered by my Committee shows he still has questions to answer yet he’s continued to duck them, refusing to respond to our invitations directly or sending representatives who don’t have the right information.

"Mark Zuckerberg continually fails to show the levels of leadership and personal responsibility that should be expected from someone who sits at the top of one of the world’s biggest companies," said Collins.

The Committee also noted that on the question of actions taken by Facebook to limit disinformation campaigns carried out by Russian actors using its platform, senior executives from Facebook “deliberately misled the Committee or they were deliberately not briefed by senior executives at Facebook, about the extent of Russian interference in foreign elections”.

Facebook's activities have to be regulated and controlled

"Facebook and its associated companies are probably the single biggest non-governmental organisation that harvests personal data and social information in the world. So it makes a lot of sense to start with them and let’s face it, they haven’t done themselves any favors in the way they have chosen to handle government requests," said Colin Truran, Principal Technology Strategist at Quest.

"Social media is the enabler for a much bigger problem that we face, which is how information-rich organisations can influence the way in which we live and our perception of the world without the required checks and balances normally used for democratic government. They are existing outside of the law which lacks the correct set of tools to detect, investigate and apply appropriate penalties. This is a global problem that regularly crosses international boundaries and therefore not something a single country can resolve on its own.

"We need the countries providing the ability to run these services to work with those that consume them. If we do not then we will see the internet becoming less and less open, with data traffic boundaries being established in the same way we see in China today, as countries fight to wrestle back control of their populations and re-establish social law and order," he added.

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