Facebook, Twitter and Google are facing the threat of new taxes to help fund a crackdown on a tide of fake news and misinformation which is poisoning British democracy, according to MPs.
A damning report from the Digital Culture Media and Sport Select Committee proposed that Facebook and other social media firms should pay a levy to cover the costs of Britain’s data privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Committee, called for urgent action to tackle the threat posed by fake news including the possibility of social media being liable for the content posted online, possibly opening them up to lawsuits from members of the general public who have been targeted by hate speech.
He said: "We are facing nothing less than a crisis in our democracy – based on the systematic manipulation of data to support the relentless targeting of citizens, without their consent, by campaigns of disinformation and messages of hate."
The report warned of "relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans and their behaviour”.
A version was leaked today by Dominic Cummings, the former Vote Leave campaign strategist, ahead of its official publication on Sunday.
The ICO is currently investigating the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which 87m Facebook users had their personal data collected without their consent and passed to the British election consultants Cambridge Analytica.
A levy, understood to work similarly to the charges imposed on financial services in the UK by the Financial Conduct Authority, would also cover the cost of introducing social media and data privacy protection onto the national curriculum to improve pupils’ understanding of how social media information may be used to manipulate them.
MPs also suggested that companies should no longer enjoy the protection of being a grey area between "platform" and "pubisher" but face liability for what is published on their products, following in the footsteps of Germany, which has greater powers to fine tech giants for offensive material like hate speech.
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The warning is the latest crisis for Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg faces pressure to abandon his dual role as chairman and chief executive after $199bn was wiped off the social network’s value on Thursday, the single biggest one-day loss of value for any company in US market history.
MPs on the DCMS committee have proposed a package of measures designed to clamp down on Facebook in the UK and the “fake news that threatens our democracy”. They include creating a new official category for technology companies under which they are responsible and liable, to be regulated by Ofcom like newspapers and broadcasters.
Investors in Facebook balked after a series of scandals surrounding fake news, cyber bullying, terrorism recruitment and Zuckerberg’s recent refusal to remove Holocaust denial from the platform.
Facebook has been forced to hire thousands of moderators to curb the use of the platform to spread extremist content and has already warned that the costs will continue to eat at its bottom line going forward.