After a well-publicised inquiry which was attended by Arron Banks and famously not by Mark Zuckerberg, the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee published their final report, titled ‘Disinformation and ‘fake news’’ on 18 February 2019.
The report was hard hitting and its Chair, Damian Collins MP, remarked that “democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation” and that “we cannot delay any longer”. Much of the publicity during the investigation and the report that followed was focussed on data use, the behaviour of Facebook and political advertising.
However other important recommendations were made. These included the creation of an independent regulator for social media companies, a review into the competitiveness of the online advertising market, and the introduction of ‘friction’ into how users interact with the sites.
A new, independent regulator
One of the most significant proposals was the introduction of a content regulation system, which would be underpinned by a statutory code of ethics. At the top would be a new, independent regulator with the power to launch legal proceedings to regulate technology companies. Its role would be to act on complaints about content and ensure compliance with key measures. Failure to comply with the code and measures could result in large fines for the sites.
There was an understanding and acceptance that at present, regulation of online content was far behind and much less effective than offline content. The desire was for parity and to have a real, regulatory regime imposed on technology companies.
Competition concerns regarding online advertising
Another concern the Committee had was with Facebook and their position in the online advertising market. It recommended that the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) conduct an investigation into Facebook’s practices and the online advertising market more broadly. The recommendation for a CMA market review was also recently echoed in the February 2019, Cairncross Report.
Improving digital literacy and slowing down interactions
One of the key broader recommendations was to put measures in place to improve the ‘digital literacy’ of the public. The aim was that people who use social media and read news online, would not only have enough genuine information to read, but the ability to critically consider what they are reading and the context.
The Committee suggested a number of measures to improve ‘digital literacy’, the focus being on actions that media companies should take to improve transparency of the information they were publicising. If the source of the information was made more transparent, the reading public would be less likely to fall victim to disinformation and ‘fake news’.
The Committee also put forward a recommendation that a social media levy is created to fund the creation of a ‘comprehensive, educational framework – developed by charities, NGOs and the regulators themselves’. Ultimately, the plan was to consider ‘digital literacy’ as the ‘fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths’ – educating people to understand their rights to their own data, the impact of sharing it and how they can ‘constructively engage’ with social media sites.
Another recommendation put forward by the Committee appears, on the face of it, to be contrary to most recent developments and drivers in the technology industry. The Committee recommended that more ‘friction’ should be built into social media platforms – making it harder to interact and post quickly, forcing thinking time into the action.
From publication on the 18 February 2019, the Government has 2 months to respond to the report and recommendations. The Committee published an Interim Report in October 2018 and felt that the recommendations were not adequately addressed in reply. The Committee hopes that the Government will respond more substantively, ‘as there is now an urgent need’ for them to do so.