Commentary

Zuck Another Manic Monday

If the job of a journalist and a politician is to hold those in power to account and ensure transgressors have the occasional ruined breakfast over the morning papers, then Fleet Street and parliament have risen to their task with vigour this morning.

Even on the morning the Labour Party began to split, there is just one story in adland to discuss today. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has torn apart Facebook, and more to the point, Mark Zuckerberg.

Regular readers will know the committee, led by Damian Collins, had been in an increasingly bitter row with Facebook's founder.

As they investigated fake news and attempts by Russia to influence elections, he repeatedly failed to turn up to answer politicians' questions directly. On one occasion he was famously "empty chaired" to underline the missing person in the room. 

Now the report is out and it is incredibly strong in its language, fuelling a media frenzy of headlines Zuckerberg will not keep for the scrapbook. Facebook is a "digital gangster" that has broken privacy laws and purposefully obstructed an investigation into its handling of fake news and electoral manipulation, the report concludes.

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It is important to remember that the enquiry started a year before last year's Cambridge Analytica scandal, and was tasked with probing the role of fake news in manipulating the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the Brexit vote in 2016 and the 2017 general election.

So even before the CA debacle, Facebook was in hot water for privacy and not doing enough to tackle manipulation of elections.

The committee's findings also warn the UK that electoral law needs beefing up to handle the threat of outside influence.

It's main criticism, however, is set aside for Zuckerberg and Facebook and the result is clear. The headlines repeat the "digital gangsters" jibe, but that will be forgotten long after the report is filed away to memory. Its lasting legacy will be the role it will have proven to play in establishing the end of self-regulation of the internet. 

This surely will be the report that stands out above all others as the clarion call for a new internet regulator to be born. At the very least, it will ensure the social media giants are held responsible for the content they allow to remain published on their sites.

It is clear that after the Government published a white paper this month or next, new rules are likely to be put in place to allow for fines if harmful or fake content a site has been warned about has not been removed. 

It will be a nightmare scenario for Facebook, and the other tech giants, as they also grapple with copyright claims made under the new EU Copyright Directive when it becomes law in the near future.

Not only are they going to have to keep an eye on copyright, they're going to have to judge harmful content and claims made that some information is fake news. I'd suggest the latter will be the hardest one to make the right call, apart from the most obvious lies. 

So, new responsibilities are around the corner for the tech giants as Facebook is laid bare on the front pages and home pages of all the UK's major news outlets today.

I cannot remember a time when a parliamentary report used such strong language to single out an individual and their company for a lack of oversight on privacy and veracity. 

Today is the day when the UK moved closer than it ever has done before to making social media giants recognise they are publishers and fine them accordingly. Such a system will need to be overseen, so we inevitably end up with an internet regulator. 

Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright is due to meet Zuckerberg this week, and it now seems unlikely the elephant in the room can be ignored any longer. Publisher responsibilities are coming and with them, one would assume, comes the oversight of a regulatory body. Self-regulation is a dead man walking.

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