Speaking at a UK parliamentary inquiry into fake news in November, information commissioner Elizabeth Denham argued that the “ship has sailed” for social media self-regulation following the Cambridge Analytica scandal in March, in which it was revealed 87 million Facebook profiles had been harvested by the consultancy and used to create targeting models for political advertising.
Denham described Facebook and others as showing a “disturbing level of disrespect” for the personal data of voters. The Information Commissioner is now calling for the introduction of a code of practice covering the use of data in campaigns and elections, to be drawn up with input from both Ofcom and the ICO.
The need for tech firms to take responsibility goes beyond data privacy. Concerns raised in 2017 still remain regarding objectionable content on YouTube and the use of Facebook and Twitter to influence audiences politically with misleading information. Meanwhile, home secretary Sajid Javid has made it a priority to investigate how online advertising is fuelling the sexual exploitation of children.
Javid, who met with tech leaders in California in November, has publicly criticised technology companies for not doing enough to tackle child sexual exploitation online. He has convened a taskforce of ad agencies, trade bodies and brands to discuss why adverts from well-known brands have appeared on sites hosting child abuse.
Libel and offensive content were two further areas where digital minister Margot James suggested in March that new rules were needed for social networks – whether statutory or self-regulatory. She told Advertising Week Europe: “There are elements of social media platforms…that cannot go unchecked, unanswered. The harms are too great.”
With regulation on the horizon and government scrutiny reaching fever-pitch, the social media giants are already struggling to back up their claims to being guardians of free speech that have no responsibility for the content posted on their platforms. The calls for change are mounting and in 2019 failing react to the concerns of society at large will no longer be an option.