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MPs and Lords grill Facebook over online safety efforts

Facebook answers British lawmakers’ questions about the social media giant’s efforts to ensure the safety of its users, as part of legislative security of the government's proposed online safety bill

Facebook’s global head of safety appeared before British lawmakers to answer questions about how the company is responding to online safety issues in the wake of ongoing controversies about its role in spreading hate online.

Addressing the joint Online Safety Bill committee on 28 October 2021, which was launched in July 2021 to scrutinise the UK government’s forthcoming online harms legislation, the company defended its record on tackling harmful content.

A central theme of the lawmaker’s combative questioning was accountability, whether online safety was a high enough priority, and who within the company is ultimately responsible for decisions made.

Under the Online Safety Bill, which the government claims will safeguard freedom of expression online, increase the accountability of tech giants and protect users from harm online, tech companies will have a statutory “duty of care” to proactively identify, remove and limit the spread of both illegal and legal but harmful content, or they could be fined up to 10% of their turnover by online harms regulator Ofcom.

The meeting comes a few days after former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before the same committee that the social network is amplifying hateful, divisive and extreme content on its platform.

Facebook’s global head of safety Antigone Davis contested Haugen’s characterisation, insisting multiple times that the company has “no commercial incentive” to provide users with a negative experience on the service.

“Some very good evidence of how seriously we take these issues are is reflected in our investment in this area: we’ve spent $13bn since 2016; we’re on track to spend $5m in this year; and we have 40,000 employees who work on safety and security. I think it’s very important to understand that we have no business interest – no business interest at all – in providing people with a negative or unsafe experience,” said Davis.

“Our platform is designed to give people an opportunity to connect, and three million businesses in the UK use our platform to grow their businesses – if they aren’t safe, if they don’t feel safe, they aren’t going to use our use our platform.”

Committee chair Damian Collins MP, however, pointed out to Davis that Facebook has earned roughly $275bn in the same period since 2016, and questioned whether investing 4% of this amount was enough.

“We invest heavily in providing people with the best experience, and if I didn’t think that we put safety and security at the at the front of our decisions, I wouldn’t be here,” Davis responded.  

Part of Haugen’s disclosures – which included the leaking of thousands of internal Facebook documents to the Wall Street Journal – revolved around research that Facebook has conducted into how people’s use of its services, including Instagram, might negatively affect their mental health, which Collins said would not have been made public otherwise.

“We share a good deal of our research… and we’re looking to share more. One of the things that is a particular challenge in the area of research is how we can provide academics who are doing independent research with access to data to really study these things more deeply,” said Davis, adding that Facebook is keen to work with Ofcom to set parameters around how research is conducted, and how it independent parties can be given access in a “privacy-protected way”.

In the draft Online Safety Bill, published May 2021, Ofcom has already been given formal information-gathering powers to compel companies to provide information so they can be assessed for compliance.

Appearing before the same committee in late September 2021, the UK’s information commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she would like to see Ofcom’s information-gathering powers “be bolstered by [compulsory] audit powers” so as a regulator it can properly “look under the bonnet”.

“It is not for Facebook [to] set parameters around the research that could be required or asked for, or even gathered by the regulator, but that the regulator should have the right to request information, just as the Information Commissioner does,” Collins told Davis.

Responding to lawmaker’s questions about whether people have a right to know about Facebook’s internal research, Davis said privacy obligations around people’s personal data stopped the company from sharing more, and further called for Ofcom to step in to create clear rules around how data can be shared for research purposes.

“We are very committed to providing more transparency around the work that we’re doing,” she said.

While further details about how exactly it works are yet to be agreed upon by British lawmakers, the Online Safety Bill also includes provisions on risk assessments that internet companies will have to carry out to show how they are mitigating the risks associated with their platforms.

In response to questioning about who exactly at Facebook will be responsible for completing these assessments, and whether this should be someone at the board level, Davis said: “I don’t know the details of how that would be worked out, but I think we would want to have someone who feels a sense of responsibility certainly.”

She added there was concern within Facebook that, while it welcomes risk assessments as a valuable tool, the need to do one for every product or system change could “slow innovation”, and recommended the measure be more periodic in nature instead.

Davis further added that, despite being Facebook’s global head of safety, she has never been called before the company’s Audit and Risk Oversight Committee, and does not know who she would report to on that body.

When pressed on whether criminal sanctions should be introduced in the Online Safety Bill for tech executives at companies that continuously fail to protect users, Davis said: “We really do welcome a regulator with proportionate and effective enforcement powers. I think criminal liability for directors is a pretty serious step and I’m not sure we need it to take action – we’ve invested, as I’ve said, $13bn.”

Read more about online safety

  • The Online Safety Bill will place new duties and responsibilities on online platforms accessible from the UK, but as it currently stands, it contains several grey areas.
  • Campaign group set up to oppose Online Safety Bill says the duty of care is too simplistic, cedes too much power to US corporations and will, in practice, privilege the speech of journalists or politicians.
  • The UK government has issued “safety by design” guidance to help tech companies better protect users online ahead of its forthcoming Online Safety Bill.

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