Facebook behaves like "digital gangsters" with customer data, MPs warn

Select committee calls for compulsory code of conduct and independent regulator to combat harmful social media content

Zuckerberg on stage

A report from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee has called Facebook "digital gangsters" for obstructing its investigation and violating privacy laws.

The 108-page report is the result of an 18-month long investigation into fake news and harmful content on social media. It calls for a compulsory code of ethics and an independent regulator, with the power to take legal action against those companies found to be in breach of the code.

Such breaches would incur fines, although no specific amount has been suggested.

Facebook featured heavily in the report, facing criticism for its failure to prevent the spread of fake news and disinformation on its platform. The social network is accused of failing to deal with known sources of harmful content and proven sources of disinformation. However, the most scathing parts of the report come from investigations into Facebook's disregard for data privacy policies.

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The report highlights documents obtained by the Committee relating to a Californian court case brought by app developer Six4Three. According to the report, there is evidence to indicate that between 2011 and 2015, Facebook was willing to override its user's privacy settings in order to transfer data to some app developers.

On top of this, the company charged high prices in advertising to some developers, for the exchange of data, and starve some developers, such as Six4Three, of that data. This, MPs concluded, was evidence of Facebook intentionally and knowingly violating both data privacy and anti-competition laws.

"Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like 'digital gangsters' in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law," the report said.

"Facebook continues to choose profit over data security, taking risks in order to prioritise their aim of making money from user data. It seems clear to us that Facebook acts only when serious breaches become public."

The report also dismissed comments made by CEO Mark Zuckerberg's that Facebook has never sold user data as "simply untrue". The DCMS committee's chairman, Damian Collins said in a statement that Zuckerberg continually failed 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.

"We believe that in its evidence to the Committee Facebook has often deliberately sought to frustrate our work, by giving incomplete, disingenuous and at times misleading answers to our questions," Collins said.

"Even if Mark Zuckerberg doesn't believe he is accountable to the UK Parliament, he is to the billions of Facebook users across the world. Evidence uncovered by my Committee shows he still has questions to answer yet he's continued to duck them, refusing to respond to our invitations directly or sending representatives who don't have the right information."

At a time when the UK's government is split over Brexit, Zuckerberg has managed to unite them. Last month the deputy leader of the labour party, Tom Watson called the Facebook founder "an arrogant corporate elite and a coward" for not appearing before the DCMS committee.

"Even in this age of a divided country and a divided Parliament over Brexit, the one man on planet Earth that has united Parliament is Mark Zuckerberg," Watson said. "I am hoping that we can have a cross-party consensus on dealing with some of these online harms that are afflicting families and communities up and down the country"

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