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Warning about manipulation of personal data

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fake news, manipulation of personal data, select committee, interim report, proposals, consultationCommittee invites responses to its proposals.

In a first interim report on its disinformation and ‘fake news’ inquiry the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee warned that we are facing a democratic crisis founded on the manipulation of personal data, and the targeting of pernicious views to users, particularly during elections and referenda.

At a personal level, the interim report outlined disturbing evidence of the activities undertaken by companies in various political campaigns dating from around 2010, including the use of hacking, of disinformation, and of voter suppression through alleged violence and intimidation.

One company, SCL, used behavioural micro-targeting to support their campaign messages ahead of USA mid-term elections in 2014, later claiming that in just one of their campaigns the 1.5 million advertising impressions they generated created a 30 per cent uplift in voter turnout, against the predicted turnout, for the targeted groups.

The Committee found evidence that AggregateIQ (AIQ) used tools that “scrape” user profile data from LinkedIn.

The tool acts similarly to online human behaviour, searching LinkedIn user profiles, scraping their contacts, and all accompanying information such as users’ place of work, location and job title.

On a broader scale, the report also begins to attempt to expose the shady, secretive world of these tech companies, and the high level international links between companies, their subsidiaries, and individuals.

The Committee has outlined a series of recommendations to tackle the problem of disinformation and fake news facing the whole world.

It sets out a series of major reforms to begin to tackle this issue, and invites responses to its proposals:

Make tech companies responsible and liable, impose a levy on tech companies to fund education and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), change the rules on political campaigning, a Competition and Market Authority (CMA) audit of fake accounts, and a Digital Atlantic Charter.

It recommends, for example, that a new category of tech company is formulated, which tightens tech companies’ liabilities, and which is not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher’ and anticipates ‘that the Government will put forward these proposals in a White Paper later this year’.

This process should establish clear legal liability for the tech companies to act against harmful and illegal content on their platforms.

Tech companies are not passive platforms on which users input content; they reward what is most engaging, because engagement is part of their business model and their growth strategy.

They have profited greatly by using this model.

This manipulation of the sites by tech companies must be made more transparent.

And just as the finances of companies are audited and scrutinised, the same type of auditing and scrutinising should be carried out on the non-financial aspects of technology companies, including their security mechanisms and algorithms, to ensure they are operating responsibly.

The Committee has recommended that the government put forward proposals in its forthcoming White Paper for an educational levy to be raised by social media companies, to finance a comprehensive media educational framework.

It has suggested there could be a levy on tech companies operating in the UK, to help pay for the expanded work of the Information Commissioner’s Office similar to the way in which the banking sector pays for the upkeep of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).

And there should be a public register for political advertising, requiring all political advertising work to be listed for public display so that, even if work is not requiring regulation, it is accountable and transparent for all to see.

There should also be a ban on micro-targeted political advertising to Facebook ‘lookalike audiences’ where users have requested not to receive political adverts.

And it suggests that the Electoral Commission should come forward with proposals for more stringent requirements for major donors to demonstrate the source of their donations.

The Committee said it supports the Electoral Commission’s suggestion that all electronic campaigning should have easily accessible digital imprint requirements, including information on the publishing organisation and who is legally responsible for the spending, so that it is obvious, at a glance, who has sponsored that campaigning material, thereby bringing all online adverts and messages into line with physically published leaflets, circulars and advertisements.

The Electoral Commission should also establish a code for advertising through social media during election periods, giving consideration to whether such activity should be restricted during the regulated period, to political organisations or campaigns that have registered with the Commission.

The government should investigate ways in which to enforce transparency requirements on tech companies, to ensure that paid-for political advertising data on social media platforms, particularly in relation to political adverts, are publicly accessible, are clear and easily searchable, and identify the source, explaining who uploaded it, who sponsored it, and its country of origin.

And tech companies must also address the issue of shell corporations and other professional attempts to hide identity in advert purchasing, especially around election advertising. There should be full disclosure of targeting used as part of advert transparency.

If companies like Facebook and Twitter fail to act against fake accounts, and properly account for the estimated total of fake accounts on their sites at any one time, this could not only damage the user experience, but potentially defraud advertisers who could be buying target audiences on the basis that the user profiles are connected to real people. We ask the Competition and Markets Authority to consider conducting an audit of the operation of the advertising market on social media.

It also said the UK government should consider establishing a Digital Atlantic Charter as a new mechanism to reassure users that their digital rights are guaranteed.

This would demonstrate the UK’s commitment to protecting and supporting users, and establish a formal basis for collaboration with the USA on this issue.

But it says the Charter would be voluntary, although it would be underpinned by a framework setting out clearly the respective legal obligations in signatory countries. Such a Charter, is said, would help ensure alignment, if not in law, then in what users can expect in terms of liability and protections.

The Committee’s final report, which will also include further conclusions based on the interrogation of data and other evidence, is expected before the end of the year.

A complete list of interim recommendations is available in the interim report.

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