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Legislators from ten parliaments put the squeeze on Facebook

The third meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News, a multi-nation body comprised of global legislators with concerns about the societal impacts of social media giants, has been taking place in Dublin this week once again without any senior Facebook management in attendance.
The committee was formed last year after Facebooks CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly refused to give evidence to a wide-ranging UK parliamentary enquiry into online disinformation and the use of social media tools for political campaigns. That snub encouraged joint working by international parliamentarians over a shared concern thats also a cross-border regulatory and accountability challenge.
But while Zuckerberg still, seemingly, does not feel personally accountable to international parliaments even as his latest stand-in at todays committee hearing, policy chief Monika Bickert, proudly trumpeted the fact that 87 per cent of Facebooks users are people outside the US global legislators have been growth hacking a collective understanding of nation-state-scale platforms and the deleterious impacts their data-gobbling algorithmic content hierarchies and microtargeted ads are having on societies and democracies around the world.
Incisive questions from the committee today included sceptical scrutiny of Facebooks claims and aims for a self-styled Content Oversight Board it has said will launch next year with one Irish legislator querying how the mechanism could possibly be independent of Facebook , as well as wondering how a retrospective appeals body could preventcontent-driven harms. (On that Facebook seemed to claim that most complaints it gets from users are about content takedowns.)
Another question was whether the companys planned Libra digital currency might not at least partially be an attempt to resolve a reputational risk for Facebook, of accepting political ads in foreign currency, by creating a single global digital currency that scrubs away that layer of auditability. Bickert denied the suggestion, saying the Libra project is unrelated to the disinformation issue and is about access to financial services.
Twitters recently announced total ban on political issue ads also faced some critical questioning by the committee, with the company being asked whether it will be banning environmental groups from running ads about climate change yet continuing to take money from oil giants that wish to run promoted tweets on the topic. Karen White, director of public policy, said they were aware of the concern and are still working through the policy detail for a fuller release due later this month.
But it was Facebook that came in for the bulk of criticism during the session, with Bickert fielding the vast majority of legislators questions almost all of which were sceptically framed and some, including from the only US legislator in the room asking questions, outright hostile.
Googles rep, meanwhile, had a very quiet hour and a half, with barely any questions fired his way. While Twitter won itself plenty of praise from legislators and witnesses for taking a proactive stance and banning political microtargeting altogether.
The question legislators kept returning to during many of todays sessions, most of which didnt involve the reps from the tech giants, is how can governments effectively regulate US-based Internet platforms whose profits are fuelled by the amplification of disinformation as a mechanism for driving engage with their service and ads?
Suggestions varied from breaking up tech giants to breaking down business models that were roundly accused of incentivizing the spread of outrageous nonsense for a pure-play profit motive, including by weaponizing peoples data to dart them with relevant propaganda.
The committee also heard specific calls for European regulators to hurry up and enforce existing data protection law specifically the EUs General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as a possible short-cut route to shrinking the harms legislators appeared to agree are linked to platforms data-reliant tracking for individual microtargeting.
A number of witnesses warned that liberal democracies remain drastically unprepared for the ongoing onslaught of malicious, hypertargeted fakes; that adtech giants business models are engineered for outrage and social division as an intentional choice and scheme to monopolize attention; and that even if weve now passed peak vulnerability, in terms of societal susceptibility to Internet-based disinformation campaigns (purely as a consequence of how many eyes have been opened to the risks since 2016), the activity itself hasnt yet peaked and huge challenges for democratic nation states remain.
The latter point was made by disinformation researcher Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika.
Multiple witnesses called for Facebook to be prohibited from running political advertising as a matter of urgency, with plenty of barbed questions attacking its recent policy decision not to fact-check political ads.
Others went further calling for more fundamental interventions to force reform of its business model and/or divest it of other social platforms it also owns. Given the companys systematic failure to demonstrate it can be trusted with peoples data thats enough reason to break it back up into separate social products, runs the argument.
Former Blackberry co-CEO, Jim Ballsillie, espoused a view that tech giants business models are engineered to profit from manipulation, meaning they inherently pose a threat to liberal democracies. While investor and former Facebook mentor, Roger McNamee, who has written a critical book about the companys business model, called for personal data to be treated as a human right so it cannot be stockpiled and turned into an asset to be exploited by behavior-manipulating adtech giants.
Also giving evidence today, journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who has been instrumental in investigating the Cambridge Analytica Facebook data misuse scandal, suggested no country should be trusting its election to Facebook. She also decried the fact that the UK is now headed to the polls, for a December general election, with no reforms to its electoral law and with key individuals involved in breaches of electoral law during the 2016 Brexit referendum now in positions of greater power to manipulate democratic outcomes. She too added her voice to calls for Facebook to be prohibited from running political ads.



In another compelling testimony, Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) in Washington DC, recounted the long and forlornhistory of attempts by US privacy advocates to win changes to Facebooks policies to respect user agency and privacy initially from the company itself, before petitioning regulators to try to get them to enforce promises Facebook had renaged on, yet still getting exactly nowhere.

No more speeding tickets


We have spent the last many years trying to get the FTC to act against Facebook and over this period of time the complaints from many other consumer organizations and users have increased, he told the committee. Complaints about the use of personal data, complaints about the tracking of people who are not Facebook users. Complaints about the tracking of Facebook users who are no longer on the platform. In fact in a freedom of information request brought by Epic we uncovered 29,000 complaints now pending against the company.
He described the FTC judgement against Facebook, which resulted in a $5BN penalty for the company in June, as both a historic fine but also essentially just a speeding ticket because the regulator did not enforce any changes to its business model. So yet another regulatory lapse.
The FTC left in place Facebooks business practices and left at risk the users of the service, he warned, adding: My message to you today is simple: You must act. You cannot wait. You cannot wait ten years or even a year to take action against this company.
He too urged legislators to ban the company from engaging in political advertising until adequate legal safeguards are established. The terms of the GDPR must be enforced against Facebook and they should be enforced now, Rotenberg added, calling also for Facebook to be required to divest of WhatsApp not because of a great scheme to break up big tech but because the company violated its commitments to protect the data of WhatsApp users as a condition of the acquisition.
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