Meet the Tory backbencher taking on Mark Zuckerberg

“Maybe he fears that he would be subjected to a level of scrutiny that he has not had elsewhere,” says Damian Collins of the Facebook CEO. 

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At the end of July, the parliamentary committee investigating the rise of fake news was preparing to publish its first report. It was the culmination of months of work and had been shared with select media under strict embargo. The report was due to publish on the morning of Sunday 29 July 2018. But two days before, on Friday afternoon, it was leaked. Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave director who had refused to appear before the committee, published the report on his blog.

“It was a ridiculous thing for him to do,” says Damian Collins, the Conservative MP who chairs the inquiry. “It was typically attention-seeking. If you look at it, the bulk of the report is not focused on Vote Leave at all. It’s been interesting to see the way in which people have sought to make the report out to be political in its motivation when it’s not at all. It’s about wide-ranging issues that affect multiple elections and democracy as a whole.”

When Collins announced the fake news inquiry in January 2017, he could scarcely have imagined that he and his committee of 11 MPs would be catapulted into the centre of a global story that would go on to dominate headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. For more than a year, the committee's work went largely unnoticed. Executives and academics providing evidence came and went with little fanfare. But that all changed on 17 March 2018, when the Observer and New York Times exposed the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Facebook's role within it.

In the months since, the inquiry’s sessions have attracted a level of media attention never seen before by a select committee. The webcast of the appearance of Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower at the heart of the Observer and New York Times' reporting, drew the largest audience of any select committee in history, and nearly crashed parliament's servers.

Unsurprisingly, given the political nature of the inquiry, most of the reporting on the committee and its first report has focused on the EU referendum campaign, data harvesting, and Cambridge Analytica, which went into administration earlier this year. However, its legacy will not be the revelations of those summoned before it, but the policy recommendations that followed. Collins might be a backbench MP, but he is determined to tame big tech, and his committee's report provides one of the best insights yet into how that might happen.

The report's most significant recommendation is a new classification for social media firms that defines them as neither platform nor publisher. In reality, this would mean that while companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube would not be held legally responsible for every piece of content they host, they would be required to more rigorously police material that is reported by users. This might involve, for example, removing media designed to mislead users during general election campaigns. Collins asks: “Then the question is: if they don’t do it, what penalty should there be?”

In Germany, social media companies face €50m fines if they fail to swiftly remove illegal content. Collins is in favour of introducing similar measures in the UK, noting: “The consequences of the German law is that one in six Facebook moderators works in Germany." The threat of fines is not the only way that social media companies could be forced to comply. Collins raises the prospect of making companies open to civil action “whereby someone could sue Facebook as a consequence of the harm that their failure to act caused”.

Collins’s committee is not alone in considering these issues. Sharon White, the head of the regulator Ofcom, revealed last month that she was exploring how new regulations could be applied to social media giants. In an article for The Times, she wrote that “the argument for independent regulatory oversight of their activities has never been stronger”. Alongside the committee's suggestions, Ofcom's guidance is expected to shape a new government whitepaper on internet safety due to be published this autumn.

The issue of disinformation came to the fore again last month when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Recode, a US tech site, that the site would not remove posts promoting Holocaust denial. Collins describes this policy as “extraordinary”, adding: “You’ve got to look at this as not just opinions that people have on historic events and ask, ‘What is the likelihood that the existence of this content will lead to harm?’”

In addition to removing posts that cause harm, social media companies could, Collins suggests, institute a traffic light system that flags content posted by users who have previously been found to have posted disinformation. “They can still read it, but you’re giving people the tools that they need to be informed,” he adds. “You can do that without having to arbitrate on whether you agree with the content or not.”

Zuckerberg has repeatedly ignored calls to appear before the committee. When Collins issued the 34-year-old billionaire with a formal summons earlier this year, Facebook responded by saying that Zuckerberg had no plans to travel to the UK. Why is he so determined to avoid the committee? “Maybe he fears that he would be subjected to a level of scrutiny that he has not had elsewhere," says Collins. “The format of our hearings lends itself much better to proper questioning than the US Senate's.”

The Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport, the ministry Collins’s committee scrutinises, has undergone a rapid ministerial turnover this year. Since January, three secretaries of state have presided over the department. The appointment in July of Jeremy Wright, the latest culture secretary, came as a surprise to many in the tech industry. Wright has rarely passed comment on digital issues, and had a dormant Twitter account before his appointment – in stark contrast to his predecessor, Matt Hancock, who commissioned his own app and regularly engaged with the tech community.

If the prime minister picks up the phone in a few months' time, in the middle of another cabinet reshuffle, and asks Collins to step into the role, what would he say? “I would be honoured to be asked," he says. “But I am very much enjoying the job I have at the moment.”

Oscar Williams is the news editor of New Statesman Tech