Facebook under fire from British government

Supersized: Facebook has over 1.8 billion users, around a quarter of the world’s population.

First tax avoidance. Then fake news. Now a row over inappropriate images of children has caused MPs to describe Facebook as “very disturbing”. Do tech giants need reining in by governments?

It was only trying to help, the BBC insisted.

Its journalists had been testing Facebook’s vetting systems by reporting 100 “sexualised” images of children on the social network. Only 18 were taken down, and so the BBC asked for an interview. Facebook told it to provide samples of the images. The BBC did so. And then Facebook reported the BBC to the police.

“It is against the law for anyone to distribute images of child exploitation,” it explained.

The “extraordinary” move prompted “grave doubts” about the platform’s ability to police its own content, said a senior MP yesterday — although Facebook says it has now removed the images. Meanwhile, journalists on the BBC’s Today complained: “None of us can recall the last time that anyone from Facebook UK came on this programme to talk on any subject.”

This is hardly the first time that the UK government has clashed with Facebook. In January it set up an inquiry to investigate fake news. In 2015 it criticised the company for paying just £4,327 in corporation tax.

In fact, governments around the world increasingly see large technology firms as a “threat” to their authority, says Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times — particularly when it comes to what he calls the “frightful five”: Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Alphabet (Google’s parent company).

Between them, these wealthy businesses have influence over many aspects of our lives, from the way we communicate, to how we shop, to the news we read in the morning. This has made life more fun and convenient for many people — but it also causes problems, as the BBC reported yesterday.

The companies are now extending their reach even further — into areas like transport, healthcare and space exploration. And governments are responding by trying to assert their control, whether through more regulation in Europe, or Donald Trump’s vague threats that Amazon is “going to have such problems”.

Status update

Leave us alone, say technology companies. This is a dynamic industry, and there is always “someone, somewhere in a garage gunning for us”, as Google co-founder Eric Schmidt once put it: tech companies are always responding to what customers want, for fear of being replaced by the next big thing. This is competition keeping them in check, and governments should not slow the process down.

That is not the case any more, reply the governments. The “frightful five” have entrenched themselves into every corner of our existence, all the while collecting enormous amounts of data about our personal lives. Lawmakers must have some control, to shape the world that voters want. Otherwise it will be left to a handful of chief executives in California to call the shots.

You Decide

  1. Who do you trust to shape your future: Silicon Valley or the government?
  2. Should MPs try harder to rein in the power of companies like Facebook?

Activities

  1. Create a poster which gives advice to Facebook users on staying safe online.
  2. In groups, create a business plan for a new technology company. Take it in turns to present your ideas, Dragons’ Den style, and have your teacher choose their favourite.

Some People Say...

“We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.”

Douglas Adams

What do you think?

Q & A

Facebook is just a part of life. Why should I worry about it?
The fact that it has become so ubiquitous is exactly why it deserves our attention. Facebook says that it wants to “connect the world”, and it has done a good job of that so far. But it has also been criticised for things like invading privacy, making people lonely, even influencing elections. In light of this, some see its refusal to engage with journalists and governments as troubling.
How can I stay safe on Facebook?
Make sure that your account settings are private, and do not accept friend requests from people you have never met. Don’t include personal information like your phone number or email address, and remember that anything you post can be read years later. If you see any abuse or harassment, report it immediately.

Word Watch

Inquiry
MPs on the culture, media and sport committee will interview executives from Facebook and Google. Both have been blamed for not doing enough to stop the spread of fake news stories.
Corporation tax
According to The Guardian, Facebook made a worldwide profit of £1.9 billion in 2014, but paid less than £5,000 in tax in the UK. This is because it had made a loss of £28.5m there, after paying £35m to its UK staff.
Wealthy
Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google all appeared in the top five of the Forbes 2016 list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands. The four had a combined value of $364.4 billion.
Transport
Apple and Google have both confirmed that they are working on self-driving cars.
Healthcare
Google’s AI technology is already working with the NHS to “support” medical research and give “faster, better treatment”.
Space exploration
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos founded another company in 2000 called Blue Origin, which focuses on spaceflight.
Regulation
The EU has passed several laws seemingly aimed at Google, addressing issues such as privacy and advertising.

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