British Parliament takes aim at Facebook’s ‘digital gangsters’

“Digital gangsters.” In a scathing report out today, lawmakers on a high-profile committee of the British Parliament tag that description to Facebook, warning the tech giant and its competitors not to act like they are “ahead of and beyond the law.” Facebook, the lawmakers say, “intentionally and knowingly” broke data privacy and competition laws (Facebook denies this), and should be subjected to multi-pronged oversight—including a compulsory code of ethics and an independent regulator with legal teeth—going forward. “Facebook continues to choose profit over data security,” they write.

The House of Commons’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport select committee opened its inquiry into social media giants in 2017. Back then, its focus was the spread of “fake news”—a hot topic on both sides of the Atlantic following the UK Brexit referendum and US election in 2016. Last March, however, a different scandal exploded: The New York Times and London Observer reported that Cambridge Analytica had harvested data from the profiles of 50 million Facebook users, then mined it to profile and target voters on behalf of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. As Facebook flailed through the remainder of 2018, the UK committee publicly raised the stakes. In November, it ordered Ted Kramer, a US tech executive who was in London for a business trip, to surrender documents from a California lawsuit involving Facebook and his app; when Kramer refused, Damian Collins, the committee’s Conservative chair, dispatched the Serjeant-at-Arms to escort Kramer to Parliament. Days later, Collins chaired an “International Grand Committee on Disinformation,” bringing together lawmakers from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore, and the UK. When Mark Zuckerberg refused to attend (he sent a deputy), he got the classic empty-seat-with-his-name-on-it treatment.

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Echoes of those theatrics ring through today’s final report. The committee lays out its conclusion, based on the documents it obtained from Kramer, that Facebook was “willing to override its users’ privacy settings in order to transfer data” to some app developers while “starving” others, CNN reports. Lawmakers also accuse Zuckerberg of contempt of Parliament for his repeat refusals to show, and of making “simply untrue” statements about his company’s data-selling practices. 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,” Collins says. Next time Zuckerberg sets foot on British soil, he can expect a formal summons.

Coming from public officials, these are extraordinary charges lodged in incendiary language. It’s no surprise they’ve made global headlines this morning. The inquiry as a whole and the coverage its attracted, however, are perhaps best understood not as a grenade but as a time capsule. Since the inquiry launched, public and media debate has moved beyond the “fake news” problem, training a harsh spotlight on social giants’ unscrupulous use of our personal data, at least where Facebook is concerned. As the debate has widened, its tone has become angrier. And Facebook’s insistence that it’s a good actor grappling with thorny problems has worn thin. Today’s report mirrors this broadening picture. While its title still refers broadly to disinformation and fake news, CNN’s Hadas Gold notes, “the other title might as well be ‘Facebook: Digital gangsters’ because it’s Facebook that bears most of the heat.”

The committee that produced the report is a legislative oversight mechanism, not an arm of the British government—and the British government, as you may have noticed, is a little busy right now. Nonetheless, Facebook should sweat its stringent regulatory recommendations. At one point, the report namechecks Germany, where social media companies already face harsh fines when they fail to act quickly on hate speech. Britain may be untangling itself from its European partners. But where Facebook is concerned, they’re closer to being on the same page.

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Below, more on Facebook and the Parliamentary report:

  • The Wright stuff: Jeremy Wright, the British government minister for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, is en route to California, where he’ll meet with top tech executives including, he says, Zuckerberg. The welcoming party for Wright could well include a former UK government colleague, Nick Clegg, who since became Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications. In October, I profiled Clegg for CJR.
  • A public rival? Britain’s opposition Labour Party wholeheartedly welcomed today’s report: “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,” Tom Watson, its deputy leader, said. Last year, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, suggested taxing Facebook to fund the BBC, and even mooted the creation of a publicly owned social network.
  • Kint’s hints: On Twitter, Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, has a useful thread on what the report could mean for Facebook in the US. “Boom. Huge,” he writes. “Report states based on evidence from ICO investigation that Facebook had at least 3 senior managers aware of Cambridge Analytica ‘breach’ prior to Dec 2015.”
  • Cairncross purposes: Today’s report follows the publication, last week, of the Cairncross Review, an independent, government-commissioned inquiry into the state of Britain’s media. As well as public subsidies for local news, the review also suggested better regulation of social media companies, as well as a public investigation of the Google–Facebook ad duopoly. For CJR, Emily Bell assessed the findings.


Other notable stories:

  • Late last month, news broke that Jussie Smollett, who stars in Empire, had been attacked in downtown Chicago; two masked men, it was reported, hurled racist and homophobic abuse and yelled about “MAGA country” as they put a rope around Smollett’s neck and poured bleach over him. Over the weekend, the story shifted: citing sources in law enforcement, CBS Chicago and others reported that the attack may have been rehearsed and staged (Smollett’s attorneys deny that claim). “The narrative that just a week ago seemed cut-and-dry has become messy and divisive—and it’s all playing out again on social media,” the AP’s Lindsey Bahr writes.
  • As expected, Trump declared a state of emergency on Friday morning. During a remarkable Rose Garden press conference, he said, among many, many other things, that “I didn’t need to do this”—a line which could come back to haunt him in court. After Alec Baldwin satirized the presser in a Saturday Night Live cold open, Trump tweeted: “how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution? Likewise for many other shows? Very unfair and should be looked into. This is the real Collusion!” The media is “THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE,” he added shortly afterward.
  • As lawmakers filed through the Senate basement on their way to vote on the spending bill last Thursday, Capitol Police officers physically shoved and blocked reporters who tried to talk to them, Roll Call’s Katherine Tully-McManus reports. According to an audio recording of the confrontation, one reporter told officers, “I am a pregnant woman and you just pushed me.”
  • As the 2020 campaign kicks into gear, the Post’s Margaret Sullivan wonders how sexist coverage of female candidates might get. “One of the qualities that makes women unlikable? Ambition. Which is, after all, hard to avoid in a candidate for president of the United States,” Sullivan writes. “We’re a sexist society, and the media reflect and amplify this.”
  • Heather Nauert, the former Fox anchor and State Department spokesperson, has pulled her name from consideration to be the next US ambassador to the United Nations. A background check found that Nauert—who would have faced a tough confirmation process anyway due to her lack of diplomatic experience—once employed a nanny who was not authorized to work in the US, Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs, Nick Wadhams, and Margaret Talev report.
  • For CJR, Amal Ahmed looks at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Michigan–based research institute that aims to bust stereotypical portrayals of Muslim Americans by putting better data in the hands of journalists and public policy experts.
  • Last week, Google and Apple were criticized for carrying Absher, a Saudi government app that allows male guardians to track and impede women’s movements. While Absher is “awful,” The Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi writes, it isn’t the root of the problem: one Saudi woman even told her that the app can help women circumnavigate repressive laws. “It feels more than a little hypocritical for politicians to be outraged about an app when both Democrats and Republicans have a long history of ignoring gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia,” Mahdawi writes.
  • Days after staffers at the Hartford Courant announced their intention to unionize, management at the publication and its parent company, Tribune Publishing, voluntarily recognized the effort, the Courant’s David Owens reports.
  • And The Guardian’s Alex Hern reports on a “revolutionary AI system” that can write convincing fake news stories from simple prompts. “OpenAI, a nonprofit research company backed by Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Sam Altman, and others, says its new AI model is so good and the risk of malicious use so high that it is breaking from its normal practice of releasing the full research to the public.” The Guardian does have a demo.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.