The UK government has rejected a parliamentary committee’s call for a levy on social media firms to fund digital literacy lessons to combat the impact of disinformation online.
The recommendation of a levy on social media platforms was made by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee three months ago, in a preliminary report following a multi-month investigation into the impact of so-called ‘fake news’ on democratic processes.
Though it has suggested the terms ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ be used instead, to better pin down exact types of problematic inauthentic content — and on that at least the government agrees. But just not on very much else. At least not yet.
Among around 50 policy suggestions in the interim report — which the committee put out quickly exactly to call for “urgent action” to ‘defend democracy’ — it urged the government to put forward proposals for an education levy on social media.
But in its response, released by the committee today, the government writes that it is “continuing to build the evidence base on a social media levy to inform our approach in this area”.
“We are aware that companies and charities are undertaking a wide range of work to tackle online harms and would want to ensure we do not negatively impact existing work,” it adds, suggesting it’s most keen not to be accused of making a tricky problem worse.
Earlier this year the government did announce plans to set up a dedicated national security unit to combat state-led disinformation campaigns, with the unit expected to monitor social media platforms to support faster debunking of online fakes — by being able to react more quickly to co-ordinated interference efforts by foreign states.
But going a step further and requiring social media platforms themselves to pay a levy to fund domestic education programs — to arm citizens with critical thinking capabilities so people can more intelligently parse content being algorithmically pushed at them — is not, apparently, forming part of government’s current thinking.
Though it is not taking the idea of some form of future social media tax off the table entirely, as it continues seeking ways to make big tech pay a fairer share of earnings into the public purse, also noting in its response: “We will be considering any levy in the context of existing work being led by HM Treasury in relation to corporate tax and the digital economy.”
As a whole, the government’s response to the DCMS committee’s laundry list of policy recommendations around the democratic risks of online disinformation can be summed up in a word as ‘cautious’ — with only three of the report’s forty-two recommendations being accepted outright, as the committee tells it, and four fully rejected.
Most of the rest are being filed under ‘come back later — we’re still looking into it’.
So if you take the view that ‘fake news’ online has already had a tangible and worrying impact on democratic debate the government’s response will come across as underwhelming and lacking in critical urgency. (Though it’s hardly alone on that front.)
The committee has reacted with disappointment — with chair Damian Collins dubbing the government response “disappointing and a missed opportunity”, and also accusing ministers of hiding behind ‘ongoing investigations’ to avoid commenting on the committee’s call that the UK’s National Crime Agency urgently carry out its own investigation into “allegations involving a number of companies”.
Earlier this month Collins also called for the Met Police to explain why they had not opened an investigation into Brexit-related campaign spending breaches.
It has also this month emerged that the force will not examine claims of Russian meddling in the referendum.
The bulk of the government’s response to the DCMS interim report entails flagging a number of existing and/or ongoing consultations and reviews — such as the ‘Protecting the Debate: Intimidating, Influence and Information‘ consultation, which it launched this summer.
But by saying it’s continuing to gather evidence on a number of fronts the government is also saying it does not feel it’s necessary to rush through any regulatory responses to technology-accelerated, socially divisive/politically sensitive viral nonsense — claiming also that it hasn’t seen any evidence that malicious misinformation has been able to skew genuine democratic debate on the domestic front.
It’ll be music to Facebook’s ears given the awkward scrutiny the company has faced from lawmakers at home and, indeed, elsewhere in Europe — in the wake of a major data misuse scandal with a deeply political angle.
The government also points multiple times to a forthcoming oversight body which is in the process of being established — aka the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation — saying it expects this to grapple with a number of the issues of concern raised by the committee, such as ad transparency and targeting; and to work towards agreeing best practices in areas such as “targeting, fairness, transparency and liability around the use of algorithms and data-driven technologies”.
Identifying “potential new regulations” is another stated role for the future body. Though given it’s not yet actively grappling with any of these issues the UK’s democratically concerned citizens are simply being told to wait.
“The government recognises that as technological advancements are made, and the use of data and AI becomes more complex, our existing governance frameworks may need to be strengthened and updated. That is why we are setting up the Centre,” the government writes, still apparently questioning whether legislative updates are needed — this in a response to the committee’s call, informed by its close questioning of tech firms and data experts, for an oversight body to be able to audit “non-financial” aspects of technology companies (including security mechanism and algorithms) to “ensure they are operating responsibly”.
“As set out in the recent consultation on the Centre, we expect it to look closely at issues around the use of algorithms, such as fairness, transparency, and targeting,” the government continues, noting that details of the body’s initial work program will be published in the fall — when it says it will also put out its response to the aforementioned consultation.
It does not specify when the ethics body will be in any kind of position to hit this shifty ground running. So again there’s zero sense the government intends to act at a pace commensurate with the fast-changing technologies in question.
Then, where the committee’s recommendations touch on the work of existing UK oversight bodies, such as Competition and Markets Authority, the ICO data watchdog, the Electoral Commission and the National Crime Agency, the government dodges specific concerns by suggesting it’s not appropriate for it to comment “on independent bodies or ongoing investigations”.
Also notable: It continues to reject entirely the idea that Russian-backed disinformation campaigns have had any impact on domestic democratic processes at all — despite public remarks by prime minister Theresa May last year generally attacking Putin for weaponizing disinformation for election interference purposes.
Instead it writes:
We want to reiterate, however, that the Government has not seen evidence of successful use of disinformation by foreign actors, including Russia, to influence UK democratic processes. But we are not being complacent and the Government is actively engaging with partners to develop robust policies to tackle this issue.
Its response on this point also makes no reference of the extensive use of social media platforms to run political ads targeting the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Nor does it make any note of the historic lack of transparency of such ad platforms. Which means that it’s simply not possible to determine where all the ad money came from to fund digital campaigning on domestic issues — with Facebook only just launching a public repository of who is paying for political ads and badging them as such in the UK, for example.
The elephant in the room is of course that ‘lack of evidence’ is not necessarily evidence of a lack of success, especially when it’s so hard to extract data from opaque adtech platforms in the first place.
Moreover, just this week fresh concerns have been raised about how platforms like Facebook are still enabling dark ads to target political messages at citizens — without it being transparently clear who is actually behind and paying for such campaigns…
In turn triggering calls from opposition MPs for updates to UK election law…
Yet the government, busily embroiled as it still is with trying to deliver some kind of Brexit outcome, is seemingly unconcerned by all this unregulated, background ongoing political advertising.
It also directly brushes off the committee’s call for it to state how many investigations are currently being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics, saying only that it has taken steps to ensure there is a “coordinated structure across all relevant UK authorities to defend against hostile foreign interference in British politics, whether from Russia or any other State”, before reiterating: “There has, however, been no evidence to date of any successful foreign interference.”
This summer the Electoral Commission found that the official Vote Leave campaign in the UK’s in/out EU referendum had broken campaign spending rules — with social media platforms being repurposed as the unregulated playing field where election law could be diddled at such scale. That much is clear.
The DCMS committee had backed the Commission’s call for digital imprint requirements for electronic campaigns to level the playing field between digital and print ads.
However the government has failed to back even that pretty uncontroversial call, merely pointing again to a public consultation (which ends today) on proposed changes to electoral law. So it’s yet more wait and see.
The committee is also disappointed about the lack of government response to its call for the Commission to establish a code for advertising through social media during election periods; and its recommendation that “Facebook and other platforms take responsibility for the way their platforms are used” — noting also the government made “no response to Facebook’s failure to respond adequately to the Committee’s inquiry and Mark Zuckerberg’s reluctance to appear as a witness“. (A reluctance that really enraged the committee.)
In a statement on the government’s response, committee chair Damian Collins writes: “The government’s response to our interim report on disinformation and ‘fake news’ is disappointing and a missed opportunity. It uses other ongoing investigations to further delay desperately needed announcements on the ongoing issues of harmful and misleading content being spread through social media.
“We need to see a more coordinated approach across government to combat campaigns of disinformation being organised by Russian agencies seeking to disrupt and undermine our democracy. The government’s response gives us no real indication of what action is being taken on this important issue.”
Collins finds one slender crumb of comfort, though, that the government might have some appetite to rule big tech.
After the committee had called for government to “demonstrate how seriously it takes Facebook’s apparent collusion in spreading disinformation in Burma, at the earliest opportunity”, the government writes that it: “has made it clear to Facebook, and other social media companies, that they must do more to remove illegal and harmful content”; and noting also that its forthcoming Online Harms White Paper will include “a range of policies to tackle harmful content”.
“We welcome though the strong words from the Government in its demand for action by Facebook to tackle the hate speech that has contributed to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Burma,” notes Collins, adding: “We will be looking for the government to make progress on these and other areas in response to our final report which will be published in December.
“We will also be raising these issues with the Secretary of State for DCMS, Jeremy Wright, when he gives evidence to the Committee on Wednesday this week.”
(Wright being the new minister in charge of the UK’s digital brief, after Matt Hancock moved over to health.)
We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on the government’s call for a more robust approach to illegal hate speech. Update: A company spokesperson has now emailed the following statement: “The Committee has raised important issues and we’re committed to working with Government to make the UK the safest place to be online. Transparency around political advertising is good for democracy, and good for the electoral process and we’re pleased the Government welcomed our recent new tools to ensure that political ads on Facebook are open for public scrutiny. We also share the Committee’s concern to keep harmful content off Facebook and have doubled the number of people working on safety and security to 20,000 globally.”
Last week the company announced it had hired former UK deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, to be its new head of global policy and comms — apparently signalling a willingness to pay a bit more attention to European regulators.