On February 18th, a United Kingdom (UK) parliamentary committee published its final report on disinformation and "fake news." The 109-page report by the Digital, Culture, Media, And Sport Committee (DCMS) updates its interim report from July, 2018.
The report covers many issues: political advertising (by unnamed entities called "dark adverts"), Brexit and UK elections, data breaches, privacy, and recommendations for UK regulators and government officials. It seems wise to understand the report's findings regarding the business practices of U.S.-based companies mentioned, since these companies' business practices affect consumers globally, including consumers in the United States.
First, the DCMS' final report built upon issues identified in its:
"... Interim Report: the definition, role and legal liabilities of social media platforms; data misuse and targeting, based around the Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ (AIQ) allegations, including evidence from the documents we obtained from Six4Three about Facebook’s knowledge of and participation in data-sharing; political campaigning; Russian influence in political campaigns; SCL influence in foreign elections; and digital literacy..."
The final report includes input from 23 "oral evidence sessions," more than 170 written submissions, interviews of at least 73 witnesses, and more than 4,350 questions asked at hearings. The DCMS Committee sought input from individuals, organizations, industry experts, and other governments. Some of the information sources:
"The Canadian Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics published its report, “Democracy under threat: risks and solutions in the era of disinformation and data monopoly” in December 2018. The report highlights the Canadian Committee’s study of the breach of personal data involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, and broader issues concerning the use of personal data by social media companies and the way in which such companies are responsible for the spreading of misinformation and disinformation... The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has an ongoing investigation into the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. As a result of data sets provided by Facebook, Twitter and Google to the Intelligence Committee -- under its Technical Advisory Group -- two third-party reports were published in December 2018. New Knowledge, an information integrity company, published “The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency,” which highlights the Internet Research Agency’s tactics and messages in manipulating and influencing Americans... The Computational Propaganda Research Project and Graphika published the second report, which looks at activities of known Internet Research Agency accounts, using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube between 2013 and 2018, to impact US users"
Second, definitions matter. According to the DCMS Committee:
"We have even changed the title of our inquiry from “fake news” to “disinformation and ‘fake news’”, as the term ‘fake news’ has developed its own, loaded meaning. As we said in our Interim Report, ‘fake news’ has been used to describe content that a reader might dislike or disagree with... We were pleased that the UK Government accepted our view that the term ‘fake news’ is misleading, and instead sought to address the terms ‘disinformation’ and ‘misinformation'..."
Summary recommendations from the report:
- "Compulsory Code of Ethics for tech companies overseen by independent regulator,
- Regulator given powers to launch legal action against companies breaching code,
- Government to reform current electoral communications laws and rules on overseas involvement in UK elections, and
- Social media companies obliged to take down known sources of harmful content, including proven sources of disinformation"
Role And Liability Of Tech Companies
Regarding detailed observations and findings about the role and liability of tech companies, the report stated:
"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. We repeat the recommendation from our Interim Report that a new category of tech company is formulated, which tightens tech companies’ liabilities, and which is not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher’. This approach would see the tech companies assume legal liability for content identified as harmful after it has been posted by users. We ask the Government to consider this new category of tech company..."
The UK Government and its regulators may adopt some, all, or none of the report's recommendations. More observations and findings in the report:
"... both social media companies and search engines use algorithms, or sequences of instructions, to personalize news and other content for users. The algorithms select content based on factors such as a user’s past online activity, social connections, and their location. The tech companies’ business models rely on revenue coming from the sale of adverts and, because the bottom line is profit, any form of content that increases profit will always be prioritized. Therefore, negative stories will always be prioritized by algorithms, as they are shared more frequently than positive stories... Just as information about the tech companies themselves needs to be more transparent, so does information about their algorithms. These can carry inherent biases, as a result of the way that they are developed by engineers... Monika Bickert, from Facebook, admitted that Facebook was concerned about “any type of bias, whether gender bias, racial bias or other forms of bias that could affect the way that work is done at our company. That includes working on algorithms.” Facebook should be taking a more active and urgent role in tackling such inherent biases..."
Based upon this, the report recommended that the UK's new Centre For Ethics And Innovation (CFEI) should play a key role as an advisor to the UK Government by continually analyzing and anticipating gaps in governance and regulation, suggesting best practices and corporate codes of conduct, and standards for artificial intelligence (AI) and related technologies.
The report also discussed a critical issue related to algorithms (emphasis added):
"... When Mark Zuckerberg gave evidence to Congress in April 2018, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he made the following claim: “You should have complete control over your data […] If we’re not communicating this clearly, that’s a big thing we should work on”. When asked who owns “the virtual you”, Zuckerberg replied that people themselves own all the “content” they upload, and can delete it at will. However, the advertising profile that Facebook builds up about users cannot be accessed, controlled or deleted by those users... In the UK, the protection of user data is covered by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, ‘inferred’ data is not protected; this includes characteristics that may be inferred about a user not based on specific information they have shared, but through analysis of their data profile. This, for example, allows political parties to identify supporters on sites like Facebook, through the data profile matching and the ‘lookalike audience’ advertising targeting tool... Inferred data is therefore regarded by the ICO as personal data, which becomes a problem when users are told that they can own their own data, and that they have power of where that data goes and what it is used for..."
What might be an exampled of inferred data? What comes to mind is Facebook's Ad Preferences feature allows users to review and delete the "Interests" -- advertising categories -- Facebook assigns to each user's profile. (The service's algorithms assign Interests based groups/pages/events/advertisements users "Liked" or clicked on, posts submitted, posts commented upon, and more.) These "Interests" are inferred data, since Facebook assigned them, and uers didn't.
In fact, Facebook doesn't notify its users when it assigns new Interests. It just does it. And, Facebook can assign Interests whether you interacted with an item once or many times. How relevant is an Interest assigned after a single interaction, "Like," or click? Most people would say: not relevant. So, does the Interests list assigned to users' profiles accurately describe users? Do Facebook users own the Interests list assigned to their profiles? Any control Facebook users have seems minimal. Why? Facebook users can delete Interests assigned to their profiles, but users cannot stop Facebook from applying new Interests. Users cannot prevent Facebook from re-applying Interests previously deleted. Deleting Interests doesn't reduce the number of ads users see on Facebook.
The only way to know what Interests have been assigned is for Facebook users to visit the Ad Preferences section of their profiles, and browse the list. Depending how frequently a person uses Facebook, it may be necessary to prune an Interests list at least once monthly -- a cumbersome and time consuming task, probably designed that way to discourage reviews and pruning. And, that's one example of inferred data. There are probably plenty more examples, and as the report emphasizes users don't have access to all inferred data with their profiles.
Now, back to the report. To fix problems with inferred data, the DCMS recommended:
"We support the recommendation from the ICO that inferred data should be as protected under the law as personal information. Protections of privacy law should be extended beyond personal information to include models used to make inferences about an individual. We recommend that the Government studies the way in which the protections of privacy law can be expanded to include models that are used to make inferences about individuals, in particular during political campaigning. This will ensure that inferences about individuals are treated as importantly as individuals’ personal information."
Business Practices At Facebook
Next, the DCMS Committee's report said plenty about Facebook, its management style, and executives (emphasis added):
"Despite all the apologies for past mistakes that Facebook has made, it still seems unwilling to be properly scrutinized... Ashkan Soltani, an independent researcher and consultant, and former Chief Technologist to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), called into question Facebook’s willingness to be regulated... He discussed the California Consumer Privacy Act, which Facebook supported in public, but lobbied against, behind the scenes... By choosing not to appear before the Committee and by choosing not to respond personally to any of our invitations, Mark Zuckerberg has shown contempt towards both the UK Parliament and the ‘International Grand Committee’, involving members from nine legislatures from around the world. The management structure of Facebook is opaque to those outside the business and this seemed to be designed to conceal knowledge of and responsibility for specific decisions. Facebook used the strategy of sending witnesses who they said were the most appropriate representatives, yet had not been properly briefed on crucial issues, and could not or chose not to answer many of our questions. They then promised to follow up with letters, which -- unsurprisingly -- failed to address all of our questions. We are left in no doubt that this strategy was deliberate."
So, based upon Facebook's actions (or lack thereof), the DCMS concluded that Facebook executives intentionally ducked and dodged issues and questions.
While discussing data use and targeting, the report said more about data breaches and Facebook:
"The scale and importance of the GSR/Cambridge Analytica breach was such that its occurrence should have been referred to Mark Zuckerberg as its CEO immediately. The fact that it was not is evidence that Facebook did not treat the breach with the seriousness it merited. It was a profound failure of governance within Facebook that its CEO did not know what was going on, the company now maintains, until the issue became public to us all in 2018. The incident displays the fundamental weakness of Facebook in managing its responsibilities to the people whose data is used for its own commercial interests..."
So, internal management failed. That's not all. After a detailed review of the GSR/Cambridge Analytica breach and Facebook's 2011 Consent Decree with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the DCMS Committee concluded (emphasis and text link added):
"The Cambridge Analytica scandal was facilitated by Facebook’s policies. If it had fully complied with the FTC settlement, it would not have happened. The FTC Complaint of 2011 ruled against Facebook -- for not protecting users’ data and for letting app developers gain as much access to user data as they liked, without restraint -- and stated that Facebook built their company in a way that made data abuses easy. When asked about Facebook’s failure to act on the FTC’s complaint, Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner, told us: “I am very disappointed that Facebook, being such an innovative company, could not have put more focus, attention and resources into protecting people’s data”. We are equally disappointed."
Wow! Not good. There's more:
"We believed that our publishing the documents was in the public interest and would also be of interest to regulatory bodies... The documents highlight Facebook’s aggressive action against certain apps, including denying them access to data that they were originally promised. They highlight the link between friends’ data and the financial value of the developers’ relationship with Facebook. The main issues concern: ‘white lists’; the value of friends’ data; reciprocity; the sharing of data of users owning Android phones..."
You can read the report's detailed descriptions of those issues. A summary: a) Facebook allegedly used promises of access to users' data to lure developers (often by overriding Facebook users' privacy settings); b) some developers got priority treatment based upon unclear criteria; c) developers who didn't spend enough money with Facebook were denied access to data previously promised; d) Facebook's reciprocity clause demanded that developers also share their users' data with Facebook; e) Facebook's mobile app for Android OS phone users collected far more data about users, allegedly without consent, than users were told; and f) Facebook allegedly targeted certain app developers (emphasis added):
"We received evidence that showed that Facebook not only targeted developers to increase revenue, but also sought to switch off apps where it considered them to be in competition or operating in a lucrative areas of its platform and vulnerable to takeover. Since 1970, the US has possessed high-profile federal legislation, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO); and many individual states have since adopted similar laws. Originally aimed at tackling organized crime syndicates, it has also been used in business cases and has provisions for civil action for damages in RICO-covered offenses... 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 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. It seems clear that Facebook was, at the very least, in violation of its Federal Trade Commission settlement."
"The Information Commissioner told the Committee that Facebook needs to significantly change its business model and its practices to maintain trust. From the documents we received from Six4Three, it is evident that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws. The ICO 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."
The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is one of the regulatory agencies within the UK. So, the Committee concluded that Facebook's real business model is, "data transfer for value" -- in other words: have money, get access to data (regardless of Facebook users' privacy settings).
One quickly gets the impression that Facebook acted like a monopoly in its treatment of both users and developers... or worse, like organized crime. The report concluded (emphasis added):
"The Competitions and Market Authority (CMA) should conduct a comprehensive audit of the operation of the advertising market on social media. The Committee made this recommendation its interim report, and we are pleased that it has also been supported in the independent Cairncross Report commissioned by the government and published in February 2019. Given the contents of the Six4Three documents that we have published, it 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... 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 DCMS Committee's report also discussed findings from the Cairncross Report. In summary, Damian Collins MP, Chair of the DCMS Committee, said:
“... we cannot delay any longer. Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalized ‘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... Companies like Facebook exercise massive market power which enables them to make money by bullying the smaller technology companies and developers... 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..."
So, the report seems extensive, comprehensive, and detailed. Read the DCMS Committee's announcement, and/or download the full DCMS Committee report (Adobe PDF format, 3,5o7 kilobytes).
Once can assume that governments' intelligence and spy agencies will continue to do what they've always done: collect data about targets and adversaries, use disinformation and other tools to attempt to meddle in other governments' activities. It is clear that social media makes these tasks far easier than before. The DCMS Committee's report provided recommendations about what the UK Government's response should be. Other countries' governments face similar decisions about their responses, if any, to the threats.
Given the data in the DCMS report, it will be interesting to see how the FTC and lawmakers in the United States respond. If increased regulation of social media results, tech companies arguably have only themselves to blame. What do you think?