Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

British and European Officials Strengthen Regulation Of Facebook


Lawmakers in Europe have long taken a tougher stance toward regulating Facebook and other technology giants than U.S. legislators. Well, they did nothing to diminish that reputation this week. The British Parliament released a trove of documents relating to a U.S. lawsuit involving Facebook. Those documents prompted calls by both British and European officials to strengthen regulation of that social network. We're joined now by Damian Collins, a member of Parliament, and his committee led that wide-ranging investigation into Facebook. Mr. Collins joins us over Skype. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

DAMIAN COLLINS: My pleasure.

SIMON: What do you believe the world learned from these documents?

COLLINS: There are probably two or three important things. One is I think it gives you an insight into the company and what they do with the data they gather. Now, Facebook say they don't sell data, but they certainly make money out of it. And I think one of the things that concerned us was whether some of the developers that work with Facebook get preferential access to data depending on how valuable that relationship is. I think there was something else, which is potentially an antitrust issue, which is the dominant position Facebook has I think allows it to pick winners on its platform. There are big questions about the way in which they use their power. The final thing I think which is I think particularly significant is are users giving informed consent when they give data to Facebook?

SIMON: Mr. Collins, why should anyone be worried about that? Is it just what you would expect a business to do, maximize the information it has and reward the most promising relationships?

COLLINS: I think we all understand with these sorts of social media tools they're free to use, but in some ways, you're giving your data to the company. The company makes money out of that by selling advertising. But the question is are we giving up far more data than we realize? And then what happens to that data when the company has it? And I think it's right that we have some say and some protection over how it's used.

SIMON: Do you feel Facebook has been honest with you?

COLLINS: No. I think a consistent pattern of behavior with Facebook is that they've failed to disclose important, relevant information to our inquiries. You know, we asked them about the way they had whitelists for companies that have privileged access to data and information. You know, we've asked them about our concerns about the - that developers have to get user data without their knowledge and consent. And we've never felt we've had full and straight answers. But we think there's huge public interest in pursuing this, and that's why we published these documents this week.

SIMON: Mr. Collins, both of our countries are very proud of being free societies where freedom of expression is important. How do you put any kind of regulations on a social media platform where people exchange ideas without limiting content in a way we would both find against our values?

COLLINS: Absolutely. We believe in freedom of speech, and we celebrate that, but we understand that in the public square there are some behaviors that aren't acceptable, and you don't have the right to go into a crowded theater and shout fire. I think with things like disinformation where people are spreading lies maliciously and with the intent of trying to influence maybe how people vote in an election, I think we need to take responsibility there, too, particularly as deepfake technology will soon make it easily available for people to create fake films of politicians giving speeches they've never given that could be released during an election campaign. And we need the ability to fight back against that sort of content.

SIMON: Well, what would you recommend?

COLLINS: What we've looked at in Britain is the idea of looking at the model we have for regulating broadcasting where broadcasters hold licenses. There's an independent regulatory body that oversees those licenses. And they get to judge in the round, do they have effective policies in place to make sure that they are producing good quality content? They respond to complaints properly. And if they're found not to be upholding the terms of their license, then the regulator can take action against them.

SIMON: Mr. Collins, we need to ask you this week - you are a member of the Conservative Party - how will you vote on Prime Minister May's proposal to leave the EU?

COLLINS: I won't be supporting the prime minister's proposal when we vote on it on Tuesday. In leaving the European Union, the idea's that we would take more control of the direction of the country. And there are some technical aspects of the deal which potentially lock us into a trading (ph) relationship with the rest of Europe that we'd have no right to break and that I think suits the rest of the EU. And so I won't be supporting the deal on Tuesday, and I'd like the prime minister to go back to Europe.

SIMON: Damian Collins, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the British House of Commons, thanks so much for being with us.

COLLINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.