British democracy is at risk as a result of data abuse by social media platforms like Facebook – with the UK “clearly vulnerable” to covert digital influence campaigns.
That’s according to a hard-hitting report from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee, which follows an 18-month investigation.
It calls for urgent regulatory action to temper the “dominance of a handful of powerful tech companies”, warning that the government should “consider the impact of such monopolies on the political world and on democracy.”
Among the examples it gives of digital electoral manipulation: the creation of a bot that searches for users on LinkedIn and then “opens their profile in such a way as to appear as though a candidate in their local election looked at their profile”.
(Users, presumably, would be flattered at the personal attention, and the move would put the name of the given candidate on their radar. Lawyers for AggregateIQ, the company that developed the tool, say it was never used).
The report’s sweeping range of recommendations include the creation of a compulsory Code of Ethics for tech giants, a shakeup of the UK’s Bribery Act, and more. Here are 10 takeaways that stood out for Computer Business Review.
10 of the Report’s Recommendations
1: Software Engineers, Not Just Their Employers Should be Targeted by Regulators
Software engineers should be held as responsible as their employers for not acting against the “distribution of harmful and illegal content.”
“If tech companies (including technical engineers involved in creating the software for the companies) are found to have failed to meet their obligations… [an] independent regulator should have the ability to launch legal proceedings against them, with the prospect of large fines being administered as the penalty for non-compliance.”
2: The UK Needs a “Foreign Agents” Act
Amid concerns about electoral vulnerability to foreign meddling, the report urges the Government to explore the feasibility of adopting a UK version of the US Foreign Agents and Registration Act (FARA). This requires “persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationships with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities”.
Current rules do not explicitly ban overseas spending on UK elections. This needs reviewing at the earliest opportunity, the report notes.
3: Russian Facebook Data Mining was Rife
Documents dramatically seized from an app developer’s CEO in London late last year revealed that “an engineer at Facebook notified the company in October 2014 that entities with Russian IP addresses had been using a Pinterest API key to pull over 3 billion data points a day through the ordered friends API.” (The API was shut down in 2015). “This activity was not reported to any external body at the time”.
4: Government Response: Who Cares?
In one fascinating passage, the report points to Russian interest in the online Government response in November 2018 to the DCMS’s interim report: “Over 63 percent of views of the report online were from foreign IP addresses… and of these, over half were from Russia,” the report notes, pointing to Russian interest in proceedings.
Almost as strikingly however, were those numbers: The online government response received just 1,290 page views and its PDF, a mere 396 unique views. It’s hard to save democracy when nobody really seems to care…
5: Does PR Need Regulating Too?
Many strategic communication companies “work on campaigns that are not only unethical and possibly illegal, but also that they work against the national and security interests of the UK with campaigns for private or hostile state actors” the report notes.
“We recommend that the Government looks into ways that PR and strategic communications companies are audited, possibly by an independent body, to ensure that their campaigns do not conflict with the UK national interest.”
6: More Digital Literacy
When news and content are increasingly micro-targeted at an individual level, it is increasingly hard to differentiate between true/false/misleading content, the MPs said.
The report reiterates a recommendation made earlier in its interim report: that an educational levy be raised on social media companies, “to finance a comprehensive framework based online, ensuring that digital literacy is treated as the fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths.”
7: Social Media Advertising Needs a “Comprehensive Audit”
The Competitions and Market Authority (CMA) should conduct a comprehensive audit of the operation of the advertising market on social media, the report says.
“It should also investigate whether Facebook specifically has been involved in any anti-competitive practices and conduct a review of Facebook’s business practices towards other developers, to decide whether Facebook is unfairly using its dominant market position in social media to decide which businesses should succeed or fail.”
8: Electoral Law “Not Fit for Purpose”
Electoral law is not fit for purpose and “needs to be changed to reflect changes in campaigning techniques, and the move from physical leaflets and billboards to online, microtargeted political campaigning” the report concludes.
“There needs to be: absolute transparency of online political campaigning, including clear, persistent banners on all paid-for political adverts and videos, indicating the source and the advertiser; a category introduced for digital spending on campaigns; and explicit rules surrounding designated campaigners’ role and responsibilities.”
9: Inferred Data Should Also be Protected
Protections of privacy law should be extended beyond personal information to include models used to make inferences about an individual, the report urges.
“We recommend that the Government studies the way in which the protections of privacy law can be expanded to include models that are used to make inferences about individuals, in particular during political campaigning.”
10: Teach “Friction”
Regulations aside, the report suggests that more obstacles or ‘friction’ should be both incorporated into social media platforms and into users’ own activities—to give people time to consider what they are writing and sharing.
“Techniques for slowing down interaction online should be taught, so that people themselves question both what they write and what they read—and that they pause and think further, before they make a judgement online.”
The cross-party committee has 11 members and was chaired by Damian Collins MP, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Folkestone and Hythe.