Here are my very quick reactions to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s Final Report on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’ published last week.
What is revealed/my reaction: Both this report, my own research cited in it and recent journalism evidences that Facebook’s monopoly and monetization of non-consensual mass data harvesting together with bullying tactics and ability to court the powerful have allowed it a troubling degree of power and has dominated the development of our political communication infrastructure encouraging and enabling the worst kinds of abuses of power by nefarious actors globally. I’m delighted the report evidences the enormity of the recent Cambridge Analytica and Facebook crisis for politics and security in a digital age, not just in Britain but affecting millions around the world. Damian Collins MP and the committee should be praised highly for doing an excellent job of this highly important inquiry. But Facebook’s profits are soaring and there has been not nearly enough media coverage to illustrate the significance of what is an extensive and detailed report. There needs to be action immediately to move forward on antitrust measures to reduce the company’s unhealthy monopoly power.
Proposals: It great to see that the report recognizes the concerns I raised in my own report submitted in evidence in September 2018 about both foreign influence and transparency over networks of companies that deal in security, commercial and political work raising possible conflicts of interest and double dealing concerns – which have huge implications for our democracies and security. It is great that the report endorses suggestions I made for handling this with regulation or licensing in the influence/strategic communication industry in the UK and US:
A British version of the US FARA legislation will help too, but these are challenges though which cannot be addressed without also greater scrutiny over defence contracting oversight and transparency about why export controls were removed from SCL Group in 2015 by the UK Government among other concerns. Other proposals go a long way toward defining answers for the problems we have encountered, the idea of a registry to enable transparency of political ads is important but must include details of influence industry companies who produce them and their networked affiliates so work can be tracked. Importantly also the highlights great weaknesses in our electoral law and the need to larger penalties and remedies that would help us understand what really happened in 2016 – the exploitation of a loophole in electoral law to funnel money to the DUP is deeply troubling – our government must allow proper investigation of this.
International: We also cannot do this alone, it is important we push for international legislation and transnational organizations to take the lead on ensuring this is a global effort. Otherwise the impacts of data privacy legislation protecting only the already-privileged West will only amplify problems of inequality, conflicts and migration which can be exploited for propaganda purposes by the far right and other nefarious actors – we can already see this inequality in how the group of SCL companies operated globally and this global divide cannot be allowed to worsen. Cross border issues of movement of data and investigation need working out. It is good to hear Eldon Insurance and LeaveEU will be audited but there needs to be international cooperation to enable full investigation of the matter of whether Arron Banks’ companies moved British data or derivatives to Mississippi for their new AI venture there. This has been shockingly slow moving despite the efforts of the ICO and Fair Vote Project.
Regulations and investigations: It is also not enough that our parliamentarians have leapt forward in their comprehension of the challenges, we now need the full recommendations in the report being actioned through legislation that is politically unpopular both among those captured by Facebook’s influence and among those who wish to propagate the myth that the EU referendum was a democratic, transparent, lawful vote that reflects ‘the will of the people’. This report shatters any confidence anyone could have had in this and rightly calls for proper and extensive police led investigation. Voters will need to write to their MPs if they want any of this investigated properly or if they want the influence industry regulation that is needed to ensure ethical conduct in our elections and a democracy we can have faith in. Our politicians need to know what the people really think of their democracy being corrupted by foreign influence, dark money, dark ads, cheating, lies and lawbreaking in this way. We really must demand another vote to ensure confidence in the biggest decision of our recent history in the light of the horrifying evidence in this report.