Facebook under siege

I am not afraid to express my views in crisp and forthright terms but never in a million years could I have imagined opening a blog with the following headline and words

Tough new powers needed to curb Facebook’s  “digital gangsters”

Facebook deliberately broke privacy and competition law……

Yet that is pretty much verbatim how the front page of yesterday’s Guardian reads. And who is responsible for these words? Is it a Marxist cell determined to bring down capitalism and all its works? No. It is a Select Committee of the British House of Commons chaired by a Conservative MP. Their report presents the conclusions of its eighteen month long investigation of “fake news and disinformation” but the implications of what the Parliamentarians found go far wider than that.

Inter alia, the report  makes a long list of astonishing allegations e.g.

Facebook continues to choose profit over data security, taking risks in order to prioritise their aim of making money from user data.

It refers to how Governments and Parliaments elsewhere are beginning to confront the mega company.

One sentence really struck home

There was one sentence in the report that really struck home to me

It seems clear to us that Facebook only acts when serious breaches become public.

At one level I am sure that is true of a great many companies, and it is unlikely to be the literal truth, but few businesses intentionally try to position themselves somewhere between Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer in the way Facebook has done and continues to do.

As if to prove the very point the Select Committee makes about only acting when things become public, consider what happened following the suicide of  Molly Russell. She died in 2017 following repeated exposure on Instagram to self-harming materials that her father is convinced drew her in and worsened her depression. After a year long search for answers Dad started a campaign late last month. The campaign was taken up by the BBC. Government Ministers stepped up. Facebook then announced a major  and very welcome change of policy.

A lack of sincerity

Facebook constantly say they take the protection of young people very seriously, assuring us it is deeply embedded in their culture.  Yet when children’s groups protested about violent or self-harming images we were ignored.  Then within 48-72 hours of the Molly Russell case going viral in the British media Facebook announced a change in its policy. How on earth does that square with earlier declarations of their attitude towards online child protection? It just doesn’t.

And the Global Safety Advisory Board? Where were they in all this?

In 2009 Facebook established a global Safety Advisory Board. Every member of it is subject to a Non Disclosure Agreement and only once has anyone ever leaked anything to me about what goes on there. I will come to that in a moment but really, before discussing the Board further, we ought to note that, last time I checked, every member of the Board was not only subject to an NDA they were also receiving some level of financial support from Facebook. In the case of the UK’s only group on the Board, Childnet International, that amounted to the not inconsiderable sum of £500,000 for a two-year project.

Can we be told how often the Board discussed self-harm images? When was the last time the matter was  on the agenda, who tabled the item and what were the conclusions?

And here is the piece of information I was given by a normally reliable source.

Mark Zuckerberg has never attended a meeting of the Safety Advisory Board

Now call me old-fashioned but if word got around that the big boss had never attended even a single meeting of something or other within your company, what would you conclude about its real status or importance?

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International, Technical Adviser to the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, which is administered by Save the Children Italy and an Advisory Council Member of Beyond Borders (Canada). Amongst other things John is or has been an Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, the Council of Europe and European Union Agency for Network and Information Security and is a former Board Member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. He is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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