Tech

UK urged to regulate how tech giants like Facebook and Google target you with content

Key Points
  • The U.K.'s AI advisor has called for regulation on how social media firms target users with posts, videos and ads.
  • It also wants the government to force tech firms to hand data over to researchers on the impact of online content.
  • Britain is expected soon to start cracking down on big tech companies over how they deal with harmful content.
The logos of Twitter, Facebook and Google
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The U.K. should regulate internet platforms like Facebook and Google over their use of online targeting algorithms and force them to share data with researchers, an advisor to the government has said.

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), an advisory body set up by the government in 2018, released a 121-page report on Tuesday calling on London to implement new rules on how social media firms target users with posts, videos and ads. It said a year-long review into the practice found "existing regulation is out of step with the public's expectations."

Content-sharing apps like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok all use machine learning algorithms to tailor content to users, based on other posts they've interacted with. The CDEI was tasked by the government with looking into the practices of such platforms and putting forward advice on how to regulate artificial intelligence to ensure it's being deployed ethically.

Research conducted by the CDEI with Ipsos Mori found that internet users generally distrust tech platforms when it comes to targeting, with only 29% of people in the U.K trusting them to target them in a responsible way. It said that 61% of Britons want more regulatory oversight while only 17% support tech platforms regulating themselves.

Britain is expected soon to start cracking down on big tech companies over how they deal with harmful content. Proposals laid out by the government last year would introduce an independent regulator with the ability to potentially slap tech firms with heavy fines and impose liability on senior executives for failing to limit the distribution of such content.

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Regulation of social media became a particular priority for the country after the death of U.K. teen Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017 after watching self-harm material online. Separately, the sharing of a video of the massacre at two New Zealand mosques last year hastened global efforts to curb the dispersion of toxic content and terrorist material online.

"Most people do not want targeting stopped. But they do want to know that it is being done safely and responsibly. And they want more control," said CDEI Chair Roger Taylor.

"Tech platforms' ability to decide what information people see puts them in a position of real power. To build public trust over the long-term it is vital for the Government to ensure that the new online harms regulator looks at how platforms recommend content, establishing robust processes to protect vulnerable people."

A.I. ethics

Experts have increasingly been urging companies and regulators to bring about frameworks to ensure artificial intelligence is developed ethically. The European Union set out its own guidelines for achieving "trustworthy" AI last year, while tech firms from Google to Microsoft have recently been calling for global rules on the technology.

In its report, the CDEI said it aims to "create the conditions where ethical innovation using data-driven technology can thrive." It highlighted the potential for AI-based targeting in swaying public opinion — especially among "vulnerable" people — influencing voting behavior and facilitating discrimination as key risks that needed to be addressed by the government.

It echoed a call from the Royal College of Psychiatrists to force tech companies to hand data over to researchers to help them better understand how internet users are impacted by online content. The CDEI said this could help inform research into the possible links between social media usage and declining mental health as well as the spread of fake news.

"We completely agree that there needs to be greater accountability, transparency and control in the online world," said Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists' child and adolescent faculty.

"It is fantastic to see the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation join our call for the regulator to be able to compel social media companies to give independent researchers secure access to their data," she added.

Political ads

The report also recommended requiring online platforms to make "high-risk" ads available on public archives. Such ads would cover marketing material related to politics, "opportunities" like jobs and housing and age-restricted products.

While Facebook has gone some way toward increasing transparency in political ads with its Ad Library, the company has so far refused to limit targeting for such posts and has drawn heavy criticism for continuing to allow false claims to appear in them.

Lastly, the report also calls on the government to give people greater control over how they're targeted with online content. It said there was very little awareness on how such platforms target users, with only 7% of Britons it surveyed saying they expected information on people they interact with online to be used in targeting algorithms.

The use of such algorithms to direct people to certain content on the internet has become particularly controversial in a post-Cambridge Analytica world. Revelations of how the now-defunct political consultancy improperly gained the data of 87 million Facebook users to sway voters in the 2016 U.S. presidential election led to a huge privacy scandal that continues to haunt the social media giant.