UK parliamentary report calls for redefinition of social media

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Earlier this week, Members of Parliament (MPs) published a report on the role of social media companies within the UK and wider global society. The findings were delivered following an 18-month investigation by UK MPs into fake news, digital political campaigning, and Russian state-sponsored propaganda. The interim publication will make up a key part of the government’s joint DCMS and Home Office White Paper on new cyber-laws, expected to be delivered later this year.

Crucially, the report rejects the current definition of social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter as neither a ‘publisher’ nor a ‘platform’. They state that a new category of tech company must be introduced in order to provide a basis for the proper regulation of social media.

How should tech companies be defined—as a platform, a publisher, or something in between? The definition of ‘publisher’ gives the impression that tech companies have the potential to limit freedom of speech, by choosing what to publish and what not to publish. Monika Bickert, head of global policy management, Facebook said, “Our community would not want us, a private company, to be the arbiter of truth. The definition of ‘platform’ gives the impression that these companies do not create or control the content themselves, but are merely the channel through which content is made available. Yet Facebook is continually altering what we see; it is shown by its decision to prioritise content from friends and family, which then feeds into users’ newsfeed algorithm.”

Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University, said in Washington D.C., “They have this very strange, powerful, hybrid identity as media companies that do not create any of the content but should and must—to their own inadequate levels—accept some responsibility for promulgating it. What they fear most is regulation—a requirement to turn over their data.”

At both evidence sessions and at a separate speech in March 2018, the then secretary of State for DCMS, Matt Hancock MP, noted the complexity of making any legislative changes to tech companies’ liabilities, putting his weight behind ‘a new definition’ that was ‘more subtle’ than the binary choice between platform and publisher. He said that the government has launched the Cairncross Review to look (within the broader context of the future of the press in the UK) at the role of the digital advertising supply chain, at how fair and transparent it is, and whether it leads to inaccurate or misleading news. The review also examines the role and impact of digital search engines and social media companies, including an assessment of regulation or further collaboration between the platforms and publishers. The consultation closes in September 2018.

What we are therefore looking at is a collaborative piece of research, which while led by UK Parliament, takes on the evidence and recommendations of government institutions around the world. It goes on to say that the inquiry has ‘wrestled with complex, global issues’ and looks into sub-sections such as bots, algorithms, data harvesting and of course the issue of Russian intervention into foreign states through digital channels. There is additional commentary on the monopolies that have been built up by social media companies, in a world where Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp, and Alphabet owns both Google and YouTube. Particular concern is raised by the current business models of these companies, which the study says – rely on the data of users for advertisers to utilise, in order to maximise their revenue with questions also raised about the current compliance of social media companies with the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).