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18 May 2017

Information Commissioner: Social Media Companies Have to Realise ‘Legal and Social Responsibilities’

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has said that “very powerful” social media companies are no longer just platforms and have “legal and social responsibilities” because of the impact they have on people’s lives.

The Information Commissioner was speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show yesterday following the announcement of a formal investigation by her office into the use of data analytics for political purposes.

The investigation comes as the European Commission announced a fine of €110 million for Facebook for “providing incorrect or misleading information during the Commission's 2014 investigation under the EU Merger Regulation of Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp.”

Facebook has also been fined €150,000 by France’s data protection watchdog CNIL and is being investigated by Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain as to whether there are any alleged data privacy violations around the tracking of users and non-users and the use of user data for advertising, the Guardian reported this week.

Facebook reportedly said: “We take note of the CNIL’s decision with which we respectfully disagree. At Facebook, putting people in control of their privacy is at the heart of everything we do. Over recent years, we’ve simplified our policies further to help people understand how we use information to make Facebook better.”

Speaking on The Media Show on BBC Radio 4 yesterday, the Information Commissioner spoke at length about the role of social media companies and their use of data.  She said: “I think that Facebook and other social media companies, the different platforms, are very powerful and I think there’s a shifting role in what they actually are.  

“They are just not a platform any more. I think there are some legal and social responsibilities for them to realise the reach and the impact on people’s lives. And I think when you look at politics and political  parties and campaigning, I mean, this is a really critical part of our democracy, so that’s why I think this is an important investigation and it’s a priority for my office.”  

Announcing the investigation on her blog, the Information Commissioner wrote: “Engagement with the electorate is vital to the democratic process. Given the big data revolution it is understandable that political campaigns are exploring the potential of advanced data analysis tools to help win votes. The public have the right to expect that this takes place in accordance with the law as it relates to data protection and electronic marketing.

“This is a complex and rapidly evolving area of activity and the level of awareness among the public about how data analytics works, and how their personal data is collected, shared and used through such tools, is low. What is clear is that these tools have a significant potential impact on individuals’ privacy. It is important that there is greater and genuine transparency about the use of such techniques to ensure that people have control over their own data and the law is upheld.

“I am conscious that opening this formal investigation coincides with ongoing campaigning ahead of the General Election. The timing of my decision is unrelated to the current campaign but I would nonetheless remind all relevant organisations of the need to comply with the law. I have written to all major political parties with our updated guidance on political campaigning.”