UK sets out battle plan to tackle Silicon Valley’s ‘Digital Gangsters’

Facebook is only the tip of the iceberg, but Parliament is coming after Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley cronies in the long-standing battle to understand and curb the influence of social media.

Featuring representatives from both sides of the political aisle led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), this perhaps set the scene for one of the most aggressive stances against the social media giants. If all the recommendations are followed up on, there could be some major disruption on the horizon.

New regulations, new definitions for the business model, a new regulator, new fines, new competition investigations and new levies against the internet players, the outcome certainly justifies the months spend investigating the complex and diverse tapestry of social media and its impact on today’s society.

“We hope that the Government will include these considerations when it reviews the UK’s competition powers in April 2019, as stated in the Government response to our Interim Report,” the report states in its concluding statements. “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.”

Such is the pace of the legislative machine, nothing will change in the immediate future, but this is an important first step into the red-tape maze of regulation. This parliamentary committee, and the subsequent report, are laying the foundations for the future. The scene has been set, with the committee painting a complex picture of deception, greed and mistrust, readying bureaucrats for an assault.

To understand how we have gotten to this point you have to go back to Cambridge Analytica scandal. Until this point the data economy was thundering along relatively undisturbed, free from the worries of regulation and oversight, however this scandal pulled the curtain back ever so slightly. The data machine was slightly exposed, but ever since politicians have been clawing to understand the cogs and levers.

But what does this report recommend? Firstly, new regulatory mechanisms. The parliamentary committee has suggested the formation of a new regulatory body, which will be funded by levies placed on the internet companies wishing to operate in the UK, which would have greater insight and powers to pry open business models and processes. Another interesting recommendation is the creation of new definitions for the internet economy.

This is part of the issue today and the reason internet giants have so much freedom. Rules have been designed for different types of organizations for a bygone era. To compensate for the inadequacy of the rulebook, new clauses have been built on top. The issue has been compounded, creating a complicated red-tape maze with loop holes, secret corridors and grey areas for lawyers to expose. The shaky foundations have not provided a suitable mechanism to hold the segment accountable.

The report states what many already know but little has been done to correct. These social media companies are no-longer simply ‘platforms’ and neither are they ‘publishers’, therefore they should not be regulated as such. A new definition should be created, with rules specific to this segment. It’s amazing to think it has taken this long to come to this conclusion, but the committee is pushing for specific rules for specific circumstances.

The report also calls for a new ‘code of ethics’, designed by independent experts and overseen by the newly created regulatory body, to hold the internet giants accountable. Using the same principle as Ofcom uses for the regulation of broadcasters, these rules would be specific to the case. It would be a square peg for a square hole.

This new approach may also be extended to the murky world of political campaigning also. After the ICO called for a pause of political spending during election periods last year, the committee has responded by suggesting new powers which would:

“…define digital campaigning, including having agreed definitions of what constitutes online political advertising, such as agreed types of words that continually arise in adverts that are not sponsored by a specific political party.”

Again, this is a criticism of the sluggish nature of regulation, not recognising the world has evolved. New rules should reflect the new digital landscape, the changing methods of promoting messages and microtargeted political campaigning. More transparency will be suggested, “clear, persistent banners on all paid-for political adverts and videos, indicating the source and the advertiser”, as well as new transparency metrics for campaigns to declare such activities.

Perhaps a more dangerous area which has finally been addressed is the in-direct campaigning which benefits or detracts from parties and individuals. These are organizations such as Leave.EU, which had no direct link to political bodies but presenting questionable materials to individuals through the hyper-targeted advertising model offered by social media companies. This takes the committee into the nefarious world of foreign influence also.

Finally, the committee is also tasking the Competition Markets Authority (CMA) to conduct an extensive investigation into the power and influence of the social media companies. Again, this means little for the moment, but it could be the first step towards identifying potential ‘monopolies’, providing justification to break up the gathering empires.

This aspect of the report leans on documentation sourced by Six4Three, a tech company which is suing Facebook for in-appropriately influencing the success of its products.

“Given the contents of the Six4Three documents that we have published, 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,” the report states.

The content of this report should not be dismissed as busywork for boresome bureaucrats but a direct threat to the success of Silicon Valley. The internet companies should be very worried about the content of this report, the conclusions these politicians have drawn and the potential implications of any recommendations. This is a political hot point right now, and we suspect there is enough ill-feeling towards the internet players to take these suggestions forward.

Facebook is the company which is constantly attracting the headlines, but this company is just one of many. The mentality has spread throughout the digital ecosystem, but Facebook is the scape goat. Unfortunately for all those involved, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has continued to antagonise politicians by refusing to show up to briefings, compounding the problem and rallying political enemies towards a single cause.

Although these recommendations are only the first steps into the complicated world of regulation, there is potential for significant disruption. With GDPR bubbling away in the background, and further privacy regulations in the pipeline, the basic business model of the internet giants is being challenged here. This document could be a defining factor in the future of the digital economy.