Posts in News

No, Trump’s Ban Was Not “Upheld”: Facebook’s Oversight Board is a Charade

05/05/2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “No, Trump’s Ban Was Not “Upheld”: Facebook’s Oversight Board is a Charade”

The headlines and social media narrative are generally positive today, as the Facebook Oversight Board claims it will “uphold the ban” on Donald Trump’s account. It may seem like a good thing that for the near future at least, Trump won’t be on the platform. In reality, we are playing with fire. The board has not upheld the ban, rather it has kicked back the decision-making power to Facebook and Zuckerberg, opening up the very real possibility of Trump causing havoc on the site once again within 6 months. 

The announcement was carefully worded, but the reality of the situation is clear. Although the beginning of the announcement states that the board “has upheld Facebook’s decision on January 7th, 2021, to restrict then-President Donald Trump’s access to posting content”, it later goes on to say that the board “insists that Facebook review this matter to determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules applied to other users of its platform”. This essentially negates the first sentence. Since the board insists Facebook decide on a “proportionate” response, effectively allowing them to make the entire decision, they are not upholding anything. 

The Oversight Board desperately wants to have it both ways – but they can’t get credit for banning Trump without actually banning him. Facebook’s narrative, that the O.B. is an independent “supreme court” that will hold Facebook accountable, is now demonstrably a lie intended to cover up the company’s countless unethical actions and practices. The board accomplishes nothing more than allowing Facebook to pretend to hold itself accountable, while remaining entirely opaque and facing no real consequences whatsoever. 

Just to recap, here are some of the things Facebook does not want to be held accountable for:  

Playing a role in the attempted coup on January 6th 2021

– Holding indefinite records of user information 

A data breach affecting over 530 million people, which they chose not to notify users about

Running an exploitative, privacy-opposed business model based on selling personal information to advertisers 

Providing a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, extremism, vitriol, and misinformation

Need we go on? 

Right-wing insurrectionism, extremism and disinformation is still running rampant on Facebook, and very little has been put forward to alleviate the severe toxicity of the dialogue taking place on the site. The Trump ban was always a distraction, and banning him permanently was always the absolute bare minimum Facebook could have done. 

The crux of the problem is that the board was created for the sole purpose of obfuscating Facebook’s internal failure to regulate its own platform. It is designed to give the appearance of accountability, when in actuality the board is nothing more than an involved public relations campaign. 

This decision demonstrates what civil society leaders, academics and experts have been saying for a long time now: social media platforms and technology companies can not effectively self-regulate. The only solution is democratically accountable oversight that takes on the business model and the algorithms that are wreaking havoc on democratic society.

Any regulation that Facebook willingly undergoes by itself will never challenge their inherently unethical and democracy-threatening business model. 

The O.B. also brought up the importance of “freedom of expression”, when referring to Donald Trump’s online rhetoric. This isn’t a question of free speech, it’s a question of free reach. Trump does not have the state-ordained right to espouse fictitious, anti-democratic, violent messages to hundreds of millions of people. Nobody has an inherent right to spread hate and lies on Facebook, whatever their position in society. 

The idea of freedom of expression long predates the existence of billion dollar social media platforms that reverberate individual voices around the world. These platforms’ tremendous reach makes them immensely powerful, and the possibility of Trump’s reinstatement on Facebook 6 months from now sends a symbolic “go-ahead” message to nationalist strongmen such as Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, and others. 

Ultimately, Facebook can not be the decision-maker regarding how these powerful platforms should and should not be used; that kind of decision has implications far beyond their scope as a for-profit business. We wouldn’t allow an oil company to let a board they appointed decide whether they should clean up an oil spill and we shouldn’t allow a tech company’s self-appointed board to decide what’s allowed on social media. 

We’ve dealt with the repercussions of Facebook’s ineptitude and greed for far too long. Enough is enough. We can not accept this non-decision as a victory. It’s time to act.

The Cure for Cronyism: Transparency & Accountability

27/04/2021 Posted by News, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “The Cure for Cronyism: Transparency & Accountability”

Over the last few years, government sleaze, favoritism and duplicity have come to centre stage in political debate. From the Expenses scandal in 2009 to the Panama Papers leak in 2016, the public has become increasingly desensitized to felonious and underhanded government conduct. A troubling lack of accountability and justice has left bad actors feeling emboldened and untouchable. That brings us to where we stand in 2021 in the face of brazen cronyism: shocked, but not surprised. 

The powers of public office have been routinely abused, with the current party of Government allegedly abusing its power to benefit its members and their friends, silence its opponents and avoid any and all responsibility for its own failures of governance. 

Democracy is unable to function properly under these circumstances.

When money and personal connections translate directly into political influence, individual voices are inevitably silenced. Cronyism is antithetical to democracy. 

The Conservative government under PM Boris Johnson faces a number of allegations concerning sleazy behaviour. To name a few: 

– “VIP lanes” for receiving COVID-19 contracts from the government based on political connections

– Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock favouring personal connections in giving out taxpayer money. 

Leaked texts between Boris Johnson and Sir James Dyson, Johnson promising to “fix” tax concerns for Dyson Limited. 

– The Greensill scandal (Which Parliament voted 357-252 to block a cross-party inquiry into) 

Government encroachment on our tax-funded civil service which needs to remain independent. 

The list goes on. Unfortunately, this type of behaviour has become par for the course and billions of pounds of your taxpayer money are at stake. As a democratic society, we have a responsibility to make sure that money is spent according to the will of the people, not as partisan favours or through backroom deals. 

As we outlined in our 2020 report Democracy in the Digital Age, the rules need to be changed in favour of more transparency and accountability – to embody the democratic principles that modern Britain purports to champion. We can’t change this broken system without meaningful legislative changes. Let’s get to work.

Join us in standing for accountability.

Biden’s Inauguration Must Inspire Reform

20/01/2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Biden’s Inauguration Must Inspire Reform”

Fair Vote UK today again urged the UK Government to pursue immediate electoral reform as a new US President is sworn in amid insurrection and violence.

It has been exactly a year since we released our landmark report, Defending Democracy in the Digital Age, and yet there has been little progress in implementing its clear, evidence-based and urgent recommendations.

Today MPs warned that more accountability, more transparency and harsher repercussions are necessary to stave off a threat to UK democracy as was just witnessed in the United States, where shocking lies and violent anti-democratic protests have been amplified and organised on digital platforms.

Creating a secure digital environment for democracy has only become more of a top priority since this report was released one year ago today. The risks are multiplying, and the dire consequences of inaction are increasingly visible and damaging. The government’s failure to implement the comprehensive reforms outlined in this report is undermining the health of our democracy.”
↳ Stephen Kinnock MP, Chair of the APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency.

Based on testimony from academics, politicians, and representatives from businesses and civil society, the report highlighted aspects of the unregulated online world that pose grave risks, and proposed twenty significant reforms to create a digital environment conducive to a healthy democracy.

With the exception of a long overdue announcement from the Government to introduce digital imprints legislation, none of these have yet been implemented.

2020 showed us yet again the damage – from COVID-19 disinformation to anti-democratic conspiracy theories – that an unregulated digital sphere is reaping.

2021 must be the year we finally tackle this problem. Joe Biden’s inauguration can provide the impetus to tackle the digital rot at the heart of our democracy. Our report, published a year ago today, explains exactly what needs to be done.

Fair Vote UK, supported by The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, will continue to fight for the urgent reform we desperately need.

Looking Ahead for 2021

14/01/2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Looking Ahead for 2021”

Happy new year! 

With a re-intensification of the pandemic in the UK and anti-democratic violence in the US it has not been the start we were all hoping for! 

Regardless, 2021 is set to provide much for democracy reformers and campaigners to focus on and, yes, be hopeful for.

On the 20th of January we will have Joe Biden’s inauguration to celebrate. With Democrats having flipped the Senate in Georgia’s key runoff elections, Biden will have the numbers in Congress to enact positive change. Even before last week’s violence it looked likely that democratic reform and tech regulation will be on the agenda. 

Now it is of the utmost urgency.

If America leads the chances are better that others will follow. UK elections (devolved, mayoral and local) in May will be an opportunity for digital-era reforms to get the public attention they need. Fair Vote UK will be leading a coalition of like-mindedly concerned civil society organisations in promoting a “Fair Play Pledge” for candidates to sign.

Recent suggestions that the elections may be delayed (in the case of England’s local and mayoral elections for a second time!) are shocking considering we’ve had a year to prepare for this. Fair Vote UK published a report in June 2020 that outlined a safe strategy for a COVID-19 era election. From staggered voting days to “pop up” polling booths, other countries have shown that it is possible to hold a safe election in these times. 

Regardless of the circumstances, you cannot go on and on suspending democracy.

In 2021 Fair Vote UK will also be leading a coalition of civil society organisations to inspect and scrutinise the development of the Government’s Online Harms Bill. This legislation will be a major attempt to introduce some rules into the dangerously unregulated digital world. It is extremely important that the rules hit the right targets and are genuinely enforceable.

Fair Vote UK will continue to build on the achievements of 2020, holding the powerful accountable and promoting sensible democratic reform in every corner of the UK and beyond.

2021 could be the beginning of the end of the dark days of rampant and dangerous big tech.

Let’s make it happen.

Who is to Blame for Yesterday’s Attempted Coup?

07/01/2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Who is to Blame for Yesterday’s Attempted Coup?”

Yesterday’s incidents were shocking but they were not surprising.

Fair Vote UK and fellow campaigners for digital and democratic reform have been warning of such an event for years. This was an assault on the democratic process but it was created by the deterioration of democratic culture.

Who is to blame? Trump, Trump’s enablers and the rioters themselves all share responsibility.

Yet the threat that exploded yesterday is one that was created, nurtured and maintained by social media. Social media radicalised these people and then helped them recruit, organise and eventually plan this attack.

There are no excuses now. What happens online has real world consequences and every country must do something about it.

Wholesale regulation is now urgently essential.

Pressuring Twitter or Facebook to clean up their act (which, surprise surprise, today they proved they can do but only will do when faced with a PR crisis) is important but it is not enough. Many of the more extreme organisations were finally kicked off these platforms last summer but their followers have simply moved to less discerning sites. 

Facebook say they have banned Trump from their platforms “indefinitely” but even now they are still prevaricating, suggesting the ban could be lifted after Biden’s inauguration. Regardless, it is too little too late. We won’t forget this.

And why should we be reliant on the ad hoc “self-regulation” of a private enterprise? Would we trust any other industry to regulate themselves? 

Only Government regulation of the whole system will fix this.

In the UK there is an opportunity to do just that with the upcoming Online Harms legislation. It must be comprehensive and robust.

Government Announces Online Harms

15/12/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Government Announces Online Harms”

The UK Government’s full response to the Online Harms White Paper, outlined today by the Home Office and Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, is well-intentioned and its scale – in some areas – admirable. In other areas, however, the proposals are vague and worryingly restricted.

Under the proposals, digital companies will have a duty of care to protect their users online. They will be held responsible for both the illegal and legal (but harmful) content that appears on their platforms.

Fair Vote UK welcomes the scale of the fines (up to £18 million or 10% of global annual turnover, whichever is the higher) that the newly appointed regulator Ofcom will be able to administer. The differentiated landscape – with the largest tech companies given extra responsibilities – is also to be welcomed.

There are significant areas of ambiguity and weakness, however, that civil society should focus on reforming before the bill is put to Parliament next year.

  1. Too much responsibility is being delegated to big tech. Allowing the likes of Facebook to decide what is the “legal but harmful” content allowed on their site is essentially the system we have now and it is one that doesn’t work.
  2. The proposed exemption for journalistic content (and the comment sections on journalistic content) is fraught with problems and will blur/complicate regulation.
  3. Only including “disinformation and misinformation that could cause significant harm to an individual” is too narrow. This will exempt disinfo/misinfo that, for example, is harmful to democracy at large or to minority and marginalised groups.
  4. Using artificial intelligence to moderate content is not a panacea and should not be celebrated as so. The training and resourcing of human moderators should be prioritised.
  5. It is still unclear what exactly is meant by “harmful content” and what will fall within its parameters. We need a better idea of this before the legislation is put to Parliament next year.

The EU Commission today has also outlined comprehensive new regulations for the tech world and they provide a useful point of comparison. Companies operating within the EU will soon, like in the UK, be required to do more to prevent the spread of hate speech. 

Yet the Commission’s proposals go much further than the UK’s in many areas. The differences can perhaps best be described as one of focus. The UK’s Online Harms legislation will purely concentrate on the content that is hosted on tech platforms. The EU, in contrast, is targeting the industry’s problematic operation as a whole; anti-competition, monopolistic tendencies, advertising etc.

The two new regimes are similar in that key questions remain unanswered with regard to enforcement. Both policy proposals have lofty ambitions but the devil is in the details and we will continue to monitor how these proposals evolve through their respective legislative processes.

The USA vs. Facebook

11/12/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “The USA vs. Facebook”

The US Federal Trade Commission and 46 of 50 states are suing Facebook on the grounds it operates a harmful monopoly.

The lawsuit has been in development for over a year and is promisingly bold, specifically calling for Facebook’s empire (which includes Instagram and WhatsApp) to be broken up. It has also been called extremely tech-literate by experts, in an encouraging rebuff to the sceptics that sometimes question the state’s ability to grapple with these questions.

The case rests on the argument that Facebook’s monopolistic dominance of social media (they have boasted that 90% of all social media usage takes place on one of their platforms) has allowed the company to erode privacy protections that were once relatively robust.

This is a vindication of what privacy groups and civil society have been saying for years!

Yet we know that these cases can take very long and that Facebook will throw everything at the defence. Now the job for people that want to see a fair and democratic society in the digital age is to keep making noise and to pressure lawmakers in other countries to follow the USA’s lead.

Matt Hancock & Mark Zuckerburg

10/12/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Matt Hancock & Mark Zuckerburg”

Who did you vote for: The UK Government or Facebook?

Sometimes it isn’t very clear.

On Tuesday it was revealed that in 2018 Matt Hancock, then the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), had held a secretive meeting with Mark Zuckerburg, CEO of Facebook, in which the former made obsequious promises about the UK Government’s willingness to get cosy with big tech.

Hancock offered to change the Government’s approach from “threatening regulation to encouraging collaborative working to ensure legislation is proportionate and innovation-friendly”.

This occurred despite the fact Zuckerburg had recently flouted Parliament, declining to attend a hearing of the DCMS Select Committee to which he had been called to answer questions about Facebook’s democratic responsibilities.

In public, Hancock had criticised Zuckerburg for this. In private the tone was much different, with Hancock going out of his way to ensure Zuckerburg that Facebook had the UK Government’s full support.

Before attending the meeting Zuckerburg had to receive numerous assurances from Hancock’s team that the meeting was going to be positive. In the meeting he threatened to pull UK investment.

Does that sound right to you? Elected representatives should be the ones making demands of powerful businessmen, not the other way round.

But what more can you expect from a Government that has done next to nothing to regulate big tech and protect our democracy, even after years of mounting evidence that something needs to be done?

We only know about this meeting because the Information Commissioner’s Office ordered DCMS to release the minutes after the Bureau of Investigative Journalism had been requesting to see them – as they have every right to do – since November 2018!

The whole situation stinks and the UK deserves better.

Big tech needs regulation – Facebook said so themselves in our 2019 consultation! – and the UK Government needs to deliver it. This will of course require a degree of dialogue between Westminster and Silicon Valley but it is not a dialogue between equals. One party is a private business. The other is a democratically elected Government. The democratic representatives set the terms, not the unelected billionaires.

Just today it was announced that a forty state coalition in the United States will be challenging Facebook over its monopolistic practices.

More of that in the UK please.

A Statement in Solidarity with Timnit Gebru

09/12/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “A Statement in Solidarity with Timnit Gebru”

Timnit Gebru is known worldwide as one of the leading minds in tackling the racism and gender bias that plagues AI. She is also a Black woman in an industry that too often proves unsafe for racialized people. Her research has shifted policy on AI internationally and she was co-lead on the Ethical AI programme – until Google fired her.

Google is one of the largest companies the world has ever known. It has immense power. Using that power to silence Gebru reflects the fragility of Google’s stated commitment to AI ethics.

We stand in solidarity with Gebru and all Black people working in tech. Along with the Google Walkout organisers, our organisations call on Google to strengthen its commitment to integrity, anti-racism, and adherence to the company’s own AI Principles in its research.

Happy 20th Birthday to the Electoral Commission!

03/12/2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Happy 20th Birthday to the Electoral Commission!”

On Monday the Electoral Commission turned 20! 

Celebrations at the independent regulator were likely subdued, however, after an autumn that has seen senior Conservatives ramp up attacks on the Commission with threats to bring it under political control and even abolish it.

The Electoral Commission was established in 2000 to bring much needed transparency and accountability to the UK’s broken and unregulated political donations environment.

Who remembers the 1990s? When every week seemed to bring a new scandal around party financing.

You don’t even need time travel to see what an unregulated electoral environment looks like. Just check across the Atlantic, where electoral regulation is weak and politics is awash with unaccountable money and untransparent lobbying. It’s part of the reason why special interest groups – like the gun lobby – can do so well despite holding minority positions.

The Electoral Commission is respected around the world and does a good job with the little resources and power it has.

But the world has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. The internet has reintroduced the bad old days of hidden money and dodgy campaigning. The Electoral Commission wasn’t designed to deal with this. How could it have been?

Let’s make it a great birthday and give it the powers it needs to protect us for the next 20 years and beyond.

Our report – Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age – outlined the twenty ways to do just that, from increasing fines to giving the Commission prosecutorial capabilities.

In the UK the pensions regulator is allowed to prosecute but the regulator charged with protecting our democracy isn’t… Does that seem right to you?