What does the Commons Facebook report tell us?

The UK Parliament’s cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee published its final report on Disinformation and ‘fake news’ on Monday of this week, 18th February 2019.

It is Titled: Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Final Report

While generic in nature regarding the issue of Fake News, it is rather damming regarding specific organisations such as Facebook and also AIG.

It is vast and contains rather a lot of detail so I do struggle to distill it down. This is going to be a long posting, but the details are quite frankly jaw-dropping, so it is worth truly grasping the scope of it all.


The report specifically calls for the following four things:

  • A Compulsory Code of Ethics for tech companies overseen by an independent regulator
  • The creation of a Regulator with powers to launch legal action against companies breaching this code
  • The UK Government to reform current electoral communications laws and rules on overseas involvement in UK elections
  • Social media companies legally obliged to take down known sources of harmful content, including proven sources of disinformation

… or to put all that another way …

  • UK Electoral law is ‘not fit for purpose’

… and also …

  • Facebook behaved like ‘digital gangsters’. They were not simply the unwitting victim, but intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws

Who Ran This committee and what does this chair now say?

The chair was Tory MP Damian Collins. This was a cross-party report, hence when published, Labour moved quickly to endorse the committee’s findings, with the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, announcing: “Labour agrees with the committee’s ultimate conclusion – the era of self-regulation for tech companies must end immediately.”

It is well worth listening to what the chair Damian Collins himself says about it all because he is the guy who had to sit through everything over the last 18 months, sift through all the evidence, and then oversee the creation of the final report. He is one of the closest to it all and has looked into the eyes of everybody who testified.

Chair’s comments

(The added emphases in mine) …

“Our inquiry over the last year has identified three big threats to our society. The challenge for the year ahead is to start to fix them; we cannot delay any longer.

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.

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.

“Companies like Facebook exercise massive market power which enables them to make money by bullying the smaller technology companies and developers who rely on this platform to reach their customers.

“These are issues that the major tech companies are well aware of, yet continually fail to address. The guiding principle of the ‘move fast and break things’ culture often seems to be that it is better to apologise than ask permission.

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.

“We also have to accept that our electoral regulations are hopelessly out of date for the internet age. We need reform so that the same principles of transparency of political communications apply online, just as they do in the real world. More needs to be done to require major donors to clearly establish the source of their funds.

“Much of the evidence we have scrutinised during our inquiry has focused on the business practices of Facebook; before, during and after the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal.

“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.

“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.

“We also repeat our call to the Government to make a statement about how many investigations are currently being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics. We want to find out what was the impact of disinformation and voter manipulation on past elections including the UK Referendum in 2016 and are calling on the Government to launch an independent investigation.”

Leave EU Broke the Law

What is quite frankly appalling is the ongoing unwillingness of both major political parties within the UK to come to terms with the fact that Leave EU not only ran a dishonest campaign littered with a collection of promises that have now been demonstrated to be deliberate lies, but that Leave EU also broke UK electoral law. This is not an opinion, it is a legal fact. The counter argument that “Remain were exactly the same” does not hold any credibility.

Currently this is all being brushed over by both parties, one of which has gone extreme right and the other which has gone extreme left, and are now mindlessly parroting “The will of the people” as the proceed to conspire to push the UK over a cliff into the abyss.

This report attacks this utter insanity.

It finds evidence supported by the findings of both the ICO and the Electoral Commission of a ‘porous relationship’ between Arron Banks’ Eldon Insurance and Leave.EU with no attempt to create a strict division between the two organisations, in breach of current laws.  As set out in the Interim Report, Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore showed complete disregard and disdain for the parliamentary process, when they appeared as witnesses.

Let’s be a bit more blunt: Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore Lied

The report concludes: “It is now evident that they gave misleading evidence to the Committee in June 2018 about the working relationship between Eldon Insurance and Leave.EU.”

AIQ was Targeting people

The Report contains details of work commissioned by the Committee into insecure data found on the AIQ website. The Committee believes that analysis of data stored in a vast repository is evidence that AIQ collected, stored and shared data belonging to UK citizens in the context of its work on the EU referendum.

The Committee concludes: “AIQ worked on both the US Presidential primaries and for Brexit-related organisations, including the designated Vote Leave group, during the EU Referendum. The work of AIQ highlights the fact that data has been and is still being used extensively by private companies to target people, often in political context, in order to influence their decisions.”

Facebook deliberately ignored your Privacy settings

I’ve seen some responses suggesting that people simply need to take more responsibility when online and set their privacy settings correctly. Nope – bullshit, anybody making that claim simply does not understand what actually happened, and is still happening, nor do they understand just how much contempt and bold disregard that Facebook has for such settings.

The Report highlights Facebook documents obtained by the Committee and published in December 2018 relating to a Californian court case brought by app developer Six4Three. Through scrutiny of internal Facebook emails between 2011 and 2015, the Report finds evidence to indicate that the company 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
  • to starve some developers—such as Six4Three—of that data, contributing to them losing their business.

MPs conclude: “It is evident that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws.”

This is so serious that they published evidence (the actual emails written by Facebook employees) from the Six4Three documents that demonstrate Facebook’s aggressive action against certain apps and highlights the link between Friends’ data and the financial value of the developers’ relationship with Facebook.

They recommend that the ICO carries 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 CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) should conduct a comprehensive audit of the advertising market on social media and investigate whether Facebook has been involved in anti-competitive practices.

They also note that Facebook, in particular, is unwilling to be accountable to regulators around the world:   “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 our Committee and the ‘International Grand Committee’ involving members from nine legislators from around the world.”

UK Electoral law not fit for purpose

The ICO identified a “disturbing disregard for voters’ personal privacy” in the use of data analytics in political campaigns, with investigations also carried out by the Electoral Commission. 

In What way is UK Electoral Law deficient?

The law as it exists was crafted in a world of billboards and leaflets, but what we now have is online micro-targeted campaigning and the laws that exist don’t apply to that. The Report calls for absolute transparency of political campaigning, with clear banners on all paid-for political advertisements and videos, identifying the source and the advertiser. It would be backed by a legal definition of digital campaigning and online political advertising, repeating a recommendation of the Interim Report. The impact of social media must be taken into account: “There also needs to be an acknowledgement of the role and power of unpaid campaigns and Facebook Groups that influence elections and referendums (both inside and outside the designated period).” 

Electoral Commission needs legal teeth that can bite (byte!)

They recommend that the Electoral Commission should be given more powers including the legal right to compel organisations they don’t regulate such as social media companies to provide information. It should have the power to increase the size of fines to reflect a company’s turnover.

On the issue of overseas interference in elections, the Electoral Commission should have the power to intervene or stop someone acting illegally in a campaign if they live outside the UK. (More on this aspect of it all in a minute)

Mainstream Network

The Report highlights Mainstream Network, a pro-Brexit website operating on Facebook, which the Committee discovered was targeting advertisements at specific constituents to encourage them to send standard emails to their MP. The Committee questioned Richard Allan, Facebook Vice President of Policy Solutions, about the organisation behind the apparent anonymity of Mainstream Network with an advertising spend estimated at more than £250,000. The Committee is still awaiting information promised by Richard Allan. The reports notes: “We consider Facebook’s response generally to be disingenuous and is another example of Facebook’s bad faith.”

Shell Companies

The Committee is calling for tech companies to address the issue of shell companies attempting to hide identity in buying political advertising in particular, with full disclosure of the use of targeting as part of advertising transparency.

Russian Interference

They found strong evidence pointing to hostile state actors influencing democratic processes.

Irony Alert: While the UK Government has accepted evidence of Russian activity in the Skripal poisoning case it has refused to accept evidence of interference in the 2016 UK Referendum. 

In calling for action the Report finds: “The UK is clearly vulnerable to covert digital influence campaigns and the Government should be conducting analysis to understand the extent of the targeting of voters, by foreign players, during past elections.”

The report makes clear that the current UK legislation to protect the electoral process from malign influence is not sufficient. Legislation should be explicit on the illegal influencing of the democratic process by foreign players. The Committee has urged the UK Government to respond in its White Paper. (That’s a cue for the Tory government to continue to cover it all up and do nothing).

Facebook and Russian Disinformation

The Committee has repeatedly asked Facebook in written correspondence and oral evidence about Russian activity on Facebook and knowledge of Russian advertisements that ran during the presidential election in America in 2016. The New York Times reported in November 2018 that Facebook had discovered Russian-linked activity on its site in 2016, attempting to disrupt the US election. 

MPs conclude that two senior executives from Facebook who appeared as witnesses left them with the impression they had “deliberately misled the Committee or they were deliberately not briefed by senior executives at Facebook, about the extent of Russian interference in foreign elections”.

Leave.EU, Arron Banks, US and Russia

The Interim Report flagged concerns over the source of a donation to the Leave campaign by Arron Banks, alleged to be the largest donation to a political campaign in British history. The Committee welcomes action by the Electoral Commission and the National Crime Agency following the Committee’s recommendation to pursue investigations into the source of the donation. 

The Report is calling for urgent action to address election rules around overseas spending: “We recommend that, at the earliest opportunity, the Government reviews the current rules on overseas involvement in our UK elections to ensure that foreign interference in UK elections, in the form of donations, cannot happen.” 

Facebook and all platforms should be clear that they have a responsibility to comply with the law and not facilitate illegal activity.

The Committee repeats its recommendation made in the Interim Report for the Government to make a statement about the number of investigations being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics. The Government should also launch an independent investigation into past elections, including the UK 2017 general election, the UK 2016 referendum and the Scottish referendum of 2014, with regard to foreign influence, disinformation, funding, voter manipulation and the sharing of data to enable appropriate changes to the law to be made.  

SCL Elections and Cambridge Analytica

The Interim Report flagged concerns that SCL Elections and associated companies, including Cambridge Analytica, worked on campaigns that raised concerns over transparency and legal and ethical boundaries. The Interim Report stated that “SCL Group and associated companies have gone into administration, but other companies are carrying out similar work. Many of the individuals involved in SCL and Cambridge Analytica appear to have moved onto new corporate vehicles“. This Report repeats the recommendation that the National Crime Agency should investigate the connections between the company SCL Elections Ltd and Emerdata Ltd, if it had not already done so. 

The Report urges a review of self-regulation for the strategic communications industry on whether new regulation is necessary to curb bad behaviour in the industry.

Bottom Line

Lots of revelations, and many good solid robust recommendations.

Will the current Tory administration actually take any meaningful decisive actions?

Given their track record of deliberate deceit, outright lies, and catastrophic policy decisions – definitely not.

You need to remember that the next time you find yourself at a ballot box.

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