UK parliament group calls for probe into Facebook’s business practices

18 Feb 2019

Image: © Jbyard/

Select committee also warns that electoral law is no longer fit for purpose in the digital age.

The UK parliament’s select committee on digital, culture, media and sport has published a damning conclusion on Facebook’s business practices, accussing the company of behaving as “digital gangsters”.

It is calling on an anti-trust probe into the social media giant’s business practices – chiefly, a detailed investigation by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – which it claims are predicated on selling access to people’s data.

‘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’

It also recommended that the Competitions and Market Authority should conduct a comprehensive audit of the operation of the advertising market on social media.

Tech dominance

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, following an 18-month investigation, has hit out at the dominance of a handful of powerful tech companies which are effectively monopolies in their specific area.

“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.

The inquiry into ‘Disinformation and Fake News’ began in 2017 but was supercharged when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in March 2018. The scandal was revealed by an investigation by The Observer which found Cambridge Analytica used a quiz app to harvest data from millions of users’ profiles, gleaning insights with which to more effectively manipulate elections and referendums.

The committee was also incensed when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg refused three separate demands to give evidence.

As well as a root-and-branch investigation into how internet platforms can be used to undermine elections, the committee is urging the UK government to make sure the democratic process is fit for purpose in a digital world.

“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, micro-targeted political campaigning,” the committee recommended.

“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.”

As well as the ICO conducting a detailed investigation into the business practices of the Facebook platform, its use of users’ and users’ friends’ data, and the use of “reciprocity” of the sharing of data, the committee urged collaboration with Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner.

“Ireland is the lead authority for Facebook, under GDPR, and we hope that these documents will provide useful evidence for Helen Dixon, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, in her current investigations into the way in which Facebook targeted, monitored and monetised its users.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years