Update: The UK Parliament’s Hearings at GW on Fake News

One year after GSPM hosted the British Parliament’s first hearings in the US on fake news and social media platforms, members of Britain’s House of Commons continue the conversation.

February 7, 2019

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Damian Collins chairs the U.K. House of Commons Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sports, which held its first hearing on fake news last February at the George Washington University. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

By Tatyana Hopkins

Damian Collins, chair of the U.K. House of Commons Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sports, wants Facebook to answer more questions a year after he probed executives of the social media network during hearings held at the George Washington University.

In an op-ed published in the New York Times last month, Mr. Collins argued to make tech companies liable for harmful and illegal content posted on their sites and summoned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear before the parliament to discuss fake news and data privacy. 

Last February, the British Parliament held its first-ever fact-gathering hearing in the United States in the Grand Ballroom of GW’s Marvin Center to question representatives of tech companies about disinformation and fake news.

Policy analysts from Google, Twitter and Facebook testified that they would cooperate with British investigators after being pressed about whether their companies would investigate fake news sites that were fronts for Russian agencies or that spread incorrect political information. The committee also heard from scholars, media experts and representatives of traditional news media organizations about how social media has affected news consumption.

Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management, helped plan the hearing. She said by holding the hearing at GW the committee was able to take testimony from higher level executives than would otherwise be the case.

“The British Parliament had never held a field hearing outside of the U.K.,” Dr. Brown said. “And they came here, specifically to GW, to host his hearing because many of the technology executives that they wanted to testify would not got to London.”

Since the GW hearing, Mr. Collins has called out tech companies over concerns of privacy violations, especially Facebook, which has been the subject of several recent privacy controversies and inquiries.

In November, Mr. Collins published a cache of documents from California app developer Six4Three’s lawsuit against Facebook, which showed that Facebook gave some companies such as Netflix and Lyft privileged access to data, including data that allowed their users to invite Facebook friends to join their app, after it had been broadly restricted to other companies including Facebook competitor Vine. 

“This month, Mark Zuckerberg announced his pledge for this new year is to ‘host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society,’” Mr. Collins wrote. “Britain is ready to discuss ‘the future of technology in society’ with Mr. Zuckerberg, whenever he’s ready. But we aren’t going to wait for him.”

In the article, he said the committee will soon release its final report on the disinformation inquiry it started at GW, which later went on to include a special international committee that included lawmakers from eight countries, and will continue a recent inquiry about the ethics and practices of addictive and immersive media.

Michael Cornfield, GSPM professor and political researcher, said before the internet the highest level of news media were geared at the nation-state level.

“Now, it's 24/7 news from anyone to everyone, and with mobile it's anywhere as well, and that's just without historical precedent,” he said.

Dr. Cornfield said the international community has struggled to develop various schemes for how to cope with and regulate digital media.

He said the regulation models span from a “restrictive” Chinese model managed by a central government to the “robust First Amendment culture and laisseze-faire” United States approach. In between, he said there is a broad European approach that limits free speech and has “heightened concerns for privacy,” as well as an “unusual” Indian system.

“In India, internet companies are required to have fiduciary responsibility for content,” Dr. Cornfield said. “So, if anything goes wrong, in the eyes of the Indian government, these companies are on the hook.”

Dr. Cornfield said GW has been at the forefront of developing analysis, information and solutions for managing digital content.

In September, Roberto Izurieta, GSPM director of Latin American Projects, staged a two-day conference for Latin American politicians about threats that digital technology posed to election security.

Dr. Cornfield spoke at the event and recommended how nations could deal with big technology companies.

In an article co-authored with Mr. Izurieta, Dr. Corfield argued for dedicated advertisement-free spaces on the web, similar to CSPAN.

“There is a register domain suffix, for civics—it’s .civ— and no one uses it,” he said, “and somebody should.”

Dr. Brown said many people who once were in “awe” of technological advancements have grown wary of their ability to improve quality of life, and that GW would continue its work to shape the narrative around technology and society.

“The most important reality is that the tech companies have a tremendous amount of data about each one of us, and while that information is being used in a variety of ways to sell us a variety of goods there comes a point in time where I think an individual should have some controls over what remains private and what become commoditized,” she said.