Facebook was in the line of fire again today, when parliamentarians from nine countries gathered at the “international grand committee session on fake news” in the UK’s House of Commons.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was, again, a no show, with Facebook putting up their vice-president of policy solutions, the former Liberal Democrat MP and member of the House of Lords, Richard Allan.
As Allan himself conceded, the optics of Zuckerberg declining, yet again, to appear before elected representatives were “not great”.
At the heart of the difficulties facing Facebook and many of their competitors is the charge that they have been cavalier to the point of recklessness in handling and using personal data.
The social media giant recently announced that hackers had discovered a security flaw allowing them to capture data belonging to up to 50 million Facebook users.
Meanwhile, 2.7 million people in the EU could have been affected by the data-sharing scandal involving the now bankrupt data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica.
In October, the ICO slapped Facebook with the maximum £500,000 fine allowable under the old 1995 data protection regulation for “lack of transparency and security issues relating to the harvesting of data”. Facebook’s appeal against the fine is still pending.
The result is that the regulatory noose around online platforms, of which Facebook is the largest and most ubiquitous, appears to be rapidly tightening.
Germany passed a law requiring platforms to remove online hate speech at the start of 2018. France is in the process of publishing a similar bill. Irish politicians are currently reviewing a law that would increase the responsibilities of to police online safety.
In the UK, however, the question is no longer whether to regulate but how to do it. The days of light-touch, or non-existent, regulation are coming to an end.
Last month, Manfred Weber, the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat for next May’s European elections, mooted the possibility of breaking up Facebook, on the grounds that its acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram amounted to a “dominant” market position.
In 2012 and 2013, faced by the looming prospect of GDPR, the approach of tech giants was essentially to tell EU lawmakers to mind their own business.
Protecting the data of their consumers was not as important as their right to use it to maximise profit. The risk is that regulation aimed at arrogant multi-billion dollar tech giants will end up putting thousands of tech start-ups out of businesses.
That attitude didn’t work with the Commission or MEPs then and tech giants wouldn’t dare use it now.
With new laws and taxes aimed at curbing their power already in the pipeline, Zuckerberg et al would be well advised to use what remains of their political capital to design the new online rulebook before lawmakers lose patience completely.
By Sam Morgan
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The clock is ticking on our caption contest, tweet us your best efforts here; the best gets a shout-out in The Brief!
Look out for…
The European Commission’s long-term climate strategy will soon be published. It’s meant to show the EU how to stick to the targets of the Paris Agreement. Check EURACTIV for dedicated coverage and also check out here what the plan could mean for transport in particular.
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