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Facebook, Google, Twitter face grilling by U.K. lawmakers

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 28, 2021

Facebook, Messenger and Instagram apps are displayed on an iPhone.  (Associated Press)
Facebook, Messenger and Instagram apps are displayed on an iPhone. (Associated Press)
Associated Press

LONDON — British lawmakers grilled Facebook on Thursday over how it handles online safety as European countries move to rein in the power of social media companies, with the tech giant’s head of safety saying the company supports regulation and has no business interest in providing people with an “unsafe experience.”

Representatives from Google, Twitter and TikTok also will be questioned by members of a parliamentary committee scrutinizing the British government’s draft online safety legislation.

Governments on both sides of the Atlantic want tougher rules aimed at protecting social media users, especially younger ones, but the United Kingdom’s efforts are much further along. U.K. lawmakers are questioning researchers, journalists, tech executives and other experts for a report to the government on how to improve the final version of the online safety bill.

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s head of global safety, defended the company’s handling of internal research on how its Instagram photo-sharing platform can harm teens amid questioning from U.K. lawmakers.

“Where does the buck stop?” asked Damian Collins, the lawmaker who chairs the committee.

“It’s a company filled with experts, and we all are working together to make these decisions,” Davis said.

She added that “we have no business interest, no business interest at all, in providing people with a negative or unsafe experience.”

Davis said Facebook is largely supportive of the U.K.’s safety legislation and is interested in regulation that gives publicly elected officials the ability to hold the company accountable.

Collins and other lawmakers pressed Facebook to provide its data to independent researchers who can look at how its products could be harmful.

Facebook has said it has privacy concerns about how such data would be shared.

“It’s not for Facebook to set parameters around the research,” Collins said.

The hearing comes the same week YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat were questioned by a U.S. Senate panel.

They provided little firm commitment for U.S. legislation bolstering protection of children from online harm, which lawmakers say ranges from eating disorders, sexually explicit content and material promoting addictive drugs.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen also appeared before the U.K. committee this week, telling members that the company’s systems make online hate worse and that it has little incentive to fix the problem.

She said time is running out to regulate social media companies that use artificial intelligence systems to determine what content people see.

Haugen was a Facebook data scientist who copied internal research documents and turned them over to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

They also were provided to a group of media outlets, including The Associated Press, which reported numerous stories about how Facebook prioritized profits over safety and hid its own research from investors and the public.

The U.K.’s online safety bill calls for a regulator to ensure tech companies comply with rules requiring them to remove dangerous or harmful content or face penalties worth up to 10% of annual global revenue.

The European Union is working on similar digital rules.

British lawmakers are still grappling with thorny issues such as ensuring privacy and free speech and defining legal but harmful content, including online bullying and advocacy of self-harm.

They’re also trying to get a handle on misinformation that flourishes on social media.

Maria Ressa, a Filipino journalist who shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for her fight for freedom of expression under grave risks, acknowledged the challenge, telling the committee on Wednesday that a law to curb disinformation is needed.

“Regulation is our last hope,” Ressa said. “The problem is that you will be a model for everyone else around the the world, so you must be a gold standard, that’s tough.”

At the same time, “doing nothing pushes the world closer to fascism,” she added.

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