The era of self-regulation of digital platforms needs to come to an end in the interest of both business and society, Conservative MP Damian Collins told Campaign’s Media360 conference in Brighton today.
The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which Collins chairs, published its report into disinformation and "fake news" in February. It called for a Compulsory Code of Ethics for tech companies overseen by an independent regulator, which would have powers to take action against social media companies that breached it.
Collins said the issue of fake accounts showed why the lack of regulation at present was both a societal and a business problem.
"One of the things we’ve called for, that I believe will happen, is for the Competition & Markets Authority to do a proper investigation of how the digital ad market works," he said.
At present, Collins argued, we have to take Facebook’s word for it that there are 2.2 billion users of the platform worldwide and that 3-4% of accounts are fake.
"What if the number of fake accounts was 10%, not 3-4% – does that mean they’re fraudulently misselling millions of accounts to advertisers?" he asked. "There should be some independent way of verifying those figures.
"That’s a business problem. It’s also a societal problem, because most of the problems in social media, in my opinion, originate from fake accounts."
The problems in social media were very different to those of traditional media, Collins said, because in the past "media problems were always dealt with by a degree of transparency", but this did not apply at all when the people posting content were often anonymous and hard or impossible to trace.
"A lot of the criticism that Mark Zuckerberg in particular has received over the last year is entirely justified and has come about because of the actions they’ve taken as a business to maximise their revenue from advertising, to gather more data, allow more sophisticated targeting, to avoid any disclosure or transparency," Collins said.
Referring to the phenomenon of Russians buying US political ads on Facebook in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election – a practice that is a US federal crime – Collins said that these had been approved by the platform’s ad check team and it took another year before action was taken. When challenged about this, Facebook said it would have checked for this if it had been asked to, he added.
"Isn’t this extraordinary – in most other complex international organisations, there is a much higher level of scrutiny and regulation," Collins said.
"If you were running a bank and said 'I can see this dodgy activity going on, I’m pretty sure this person has been laundering money through my bank for years, but no-one told me it was going on', you’d lose your licence. The same requirements just don’t exist on social media and tech because that world has grown so fast and the idea of proper oversights have not grown with it."