Monday 18 February 2019 9:45 am

Tech giants should be held to compulsory ‘code of ethics’, MPs say

Facebook and other tech giants should face stricter regulation to tackle the spread of fake news and misuse of personal data, MPs said today.

Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was harshly criticised in the final report on disinformation by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee, having declined several invitations to attend parliamentary hearings on the matter.

The committee called for a compulsory code of ethics to be established by an independent regulator, which would then have powers to take legal action against tech firms that breach its rules. It also backed an upcoming white paper into online harms from culture secretary Jeremy Wright, urging social media sites to be more responsible for taking down sources of harmful content.

Read more: Social media firms could face 'criminal sanctions' over harmful content

"The big tech companies are failing in the duty of care they owe to their users to act against harmful content, and to respect their data privacy rights," said DCMS chair Damian Collins.

"These are issues that the major tech companies are well aware of, yet continually fail to address. The guiding principle of the ‘move fast and break things’ culture often seems to be that it is better to apologise than ask permission."

Collins said the committee believed Facebook had "often deliberately sought to frustrate our work" during the committee's 18-month inquiry into the firm's role in several data scandals, accusing them of "giving incomplete, disingenuous and at times misleading answers to our questions".

The committee controversially acquired several documents from an app developer in December which contained internal emails from Facebook between 2011 and 2015. Though DCMS has been blocked from revealing much of the emails' contents, MPs claimed to have proof that Facebook "intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws". 

Read more: MPs and international ministers blast Zuckerberg over non-appearance

Collins blamed Zuckerberg for the company's alleged misdirection tactics, saying the founder had either refused to answer questions or only sent representatives from Facebook who did not have the relevant information.

He added: "Mark 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."

Google and Twitter were also identified in the report as platforms of with a history of disinformation, given widespread targeting of users with personalised adverts from unidentifiable sources. DCMS said often companies such as Facebook were also abusing smaller businesses which used its platform to reach customers.

The head of the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which acts as the UK's regulator on data breaches like Cambridge Analytica, pushed last week for her office to have a wider level of oversight on tech giants.

Read more: UK data watchdog pushes for a wider remit in tech giant audits

Speaking at the Institute for Government, Elizabeth Denham described MPs’ calls for regulation of tech giants as a “knee-jerk reaction” that, if excessive, could impinge on freedom of expression.

“[The decision] is one for government and parliament, but you can’t take the data protection regulator out of the mix given [data] personalisation being really at the centre of a lot of these harms,” she said.