If Mark Zuckerberg Wants to Talk, Britain Is Waiting

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg exits the Rayburn House Office Building following his testimony to Congress in April on Capitol Hill in Washington. Credit Tom Brenner/The New York Times
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg exits the Rayburn House Office Building following his testimony to Congress in April on Capitol Hill in Washington. Credit Tom Brenner/The New York Times

This month, Mark Zuckerberg announced that his pledge for this new year is to “host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society”. He added that he intends to “try different formats to keep it interesting”, and we in Britain would like to suggest such an event for him.

Perhaps he could present information in our Parliament to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee that I head — something he refused to do in 2018. Or if that doesn’t work for him, I would be happy to reconvene the special International Grand Committee, which met at the House of Commons in November and included lawmakers from Britain, Canada, Ireland, France, Latvia, Brazil, Argentina and Singapore.

Indeed, we offered Mr. Zuckerberg plenty of opportunities to have these discussions last year. These committees met with the intention of discussing the following with him: the Cambridge Analytica Facebook data breach scandal; the Russian government’s use of social media platforms to interfere in the politics of democracies around the world; the anti-competitive nature of some of Facebook’s business practices; and Facebook’s harmful content policies. He didn’t want to have these discussions then, but we hope that he’s sincere and wants to have them now.

Last year, Facebook lashed out instead of opening up. It criticized the investigations of this newspaper into the company, it criticized the investigatory work of my committee, and it claimed that both investigations demonstrated unfair bias against them. It refused to appreciate that its customers have genuine concerns about the way Facebook gathers data from its users and makes it available to other companies through advertising targeting tools or reciprocal sharing agreements.

Last November, my committee published documents from the California app developer Six4Three. These documents showed how some small tech companies have suffered thanks to the way Facebook handles its relationships with app developers, while big commercial clients of the company (like Airbnb, Netflix and Lyft) enjoyed privileged access to user data that was denied to most other companies. For example, these documents showed how with just four words — “Yup, go for it” — Mr. Zuckerberg gave the order to effectively shut down Vine, a competitor video sharing app, by denying it access to Facebook friends’ data.

It is a scandal that Facebook allowed a Russian internet agency to break election laws by buying advertising to target American voters during the 2016 election season. It is a scandal that they knew about the problems with Cambridge Analytica in late 2015 but informed their users about the data breach only after the whistle-blower Chris Wylie brought the whole story to the public’s attention. It’s a scandal that we still don’t know how many other companies managed to acquire Facebook data in a way similar to Cambridge Analytica’s.

Britain is ready to discuss “the future of technology in society” with Mr. Zuckerberg, whenever he’s ready. But we aren’t going to wait for him. We’re having those discussions now.

In fact, my goals for the year ahead aren’t very different from Mr. Zuckerberg’s. This month, my select committee will produce our final report in our inquiry into disinformation and the many issues we have examined related to Facebook and other social media companies. We also recently began an inquiry into the ethics and practices of addictive and immersive media.

I believe we should give tech companies limited liability for harmful and illegal content that has been posted on their sites. If a company has been notified of this content or should have reasonably been able to discover it on its own, then it should be required to take it down promptly or be held responsible for its still being there. This principle has already been established in Germany, where the government requires the tech companies to act against content that is in breach of the country’s hate speech laws.

As in industries like banking, telecommunications and broadcasting, we need regulators to oversee the systems that tech companies have in place to gather and manage user data, and act against harmful content. These regulators should have the power to go into tech companies and gain access to otherwise protected information to complete their investigations. If the companies are found to be behaving irresponsibly, then the regulators could act against them. In Britain, we have already established these powers for the data protection regulator, the information commissioner. However, we also need a regulator with similar powers to take enforcement action against poor content management.

I have taken a great interest in the debate in the United States relating to political advertising and the Honest Ads Act introduced by Senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner and John McCain. Citizens should have the right to know who is buying political ads online, why they are being targeted with them and which candidates the ads are there to support. Social media companies have said that they will introduce these policies on their platforms, but they should be required to do so by law; we should not just rely on their good will. In Britain, the information commissioner has questioned the legality of Facebook’s allowing advertisers to target users based on their political views, and without their direct consent, by including them in the look-alike audiences they make available to campaigns.

So much of our lives is organized through social media, and many people use social media platforms as the main source of information about the world around them. We cannot allow this public space to become a complete wild West, with little or no protection for the citizen user. The rights and responsibilities that we enjoy in the real world need to exist and be protected online as well.

Damian Collins is a member of the British Parliament and the head of the House of Commons select committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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