In September 2021, the Wall Street Journal published a series of reports named the Facebook Files which revealed Facebook’s knowledge of the serious problems with its platforms and its failure to solve these.
The reports were based on a mass of internal documents shared by whistle blower Frances Haugen. In the subsequent weeks, Haugen further substantiated on these claims in a testimony to both senators in the US and MPs in the UK.
Some of the revelations include:
“Weak” response to human trafficking concerns
- Despite Facebook employees reporting concerns that the company’s apps were being used to sell maids in the Philippines, little was done until Apple threatened to remove Facebook’s products from its App Store
Failure to publicise research which showed that Instagram is “toxic” for young people
- An internal study showed that, of the teenagers who had reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced this back to Instagram
Exemption of high-profile figures from being subject to the same rules as other users through an internal programme called “XCheck”
- 8 million public figures were “whitelisted” – in other words exempted – from being found to have violated Facebook’s policies or not being subject to enforcement action
Facebook has subsequently changed the name of its parent company to Meta, in a rebrand described by co-founder Mark Zuckerberg as one which will better “reflect who we are and the future we hope to build”. The company is planning on building a “metaverse” which will shift its focus to virtual reality. Critics have slated the move as an attempt to divert attention from the widespread negative press.
Whilst these revelations may mark a turning point in the public perception of Facebook, or Meta as it is now called, many governments have been in the process of regulating social media sites for several years. The UK Government’s draft Online Safety Bill leads the way in introducing legislation which aims to tackle illegal and harmful material online.
UK Draft Online Safety Bill
- Published in May 2021, two years after the Government published its White Paper on Online Harms
- Duty of care imposed on “user-to-user services” (providers of internet services where users can upload and share user-generated content) and “search services” (providers of search engines) to take steps to prevent exposure to and removal of illegal content including terrorist content, child pornography and racial hate – and content that is harmful to children (despite this last element not necessarily being illegal)
- ‘Big Tech’ social media companies (the largest sites which are thought to pose the highest risk to users and are likely to include Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) will be made even more accountable by imposing a duty of care which will protect users from content harmful to adults too
- Ofcom will be given new powers to regulate these social media companies
- Fines of up to £18 million or 10% of global turnover
Concerns have, however, been raised by some campaigners about what this will mean for free speech, as it is argued that tech companies could “over-censor” to avoid fines.
The Bill attempts to remove these barriers to free speech by including the requirement for businesses to have “safeguards for freedom of expression” in place. ‘Big Tech’ corporations must also publish assessments of their impact on freedom of expression and will have a duty to protect “democratically important” content, for example posts promoting or opposing government policy or a political party before elections. There will also be journalistic exemptions for recognised news publishers.
The recent murder of MP Sir David Amess has further ignited the calls for the regulation of social media sites. It prompted Home Secretary Priti Patel to suggest the introduction of legislation which would remove the right to online anonymity in order to tackle radicalisation.
The draft Bill is currently being scrutinised by a joint committee of MPs and peers, who have sought input from the public. The committee will report their findings to the government on the 10th December 2021. There will then be an opportunity to make any changes before the Bill is formally introduced to Parliament.
As many other governments also work on similar tech-related legislation, such as the Digital Services Act package in the EU, it seems that we have reached a watershed moment in social media and the laws regulating these key platforms for content and information.