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25 October 2018

Jeremy Wright: Levy On Social Media Platforms “Something Worth Considering”

The newly appointed Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, spoke at his first Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee hearing yesterday and answered questions on fake news, holding social media platforms to account, and educating the public to better spot fake news.

When questioned about a levy on social media platforms, Mr Wright said: “I personally have not had that conversation with Facebook yet, but… if Facebook says it doesn’t want to pay it that will not be the answer to whether or not we should have one.”

He continued: “We can look at a levy to fund a number of things. We can look at it to fund education, we could also look at it to fund a regulator, if we considered that a regulator is necessary.

“If we are going to carry out additional activity, whether that’s because of additional regulation or because of additional education for example, then it’s got to be funded somehow.” He said a levy on social media platforms was therefore “something worth considering”.

Asked whether social media platforms should fund solutions to existing problems, Mr Wright said: “If we’re still talking about the threat to our democracy, to our national security, by a hostile foreign state then of course there’s a dimension of that where the cost needs to be borne by the taxpayer, because that’s part of the job of the state defending itself.

“If, on the other hand, we’re talking about online harms more broadly, then there is a role for us to think about – for social media companies and other online presences – …how this extra activity should be funded.”

He added that “most of the companies” being discussed have recognised that “the status quo isn’t sufficient”.

Discussing the possibility of establishing an internet regulator, Mr Wright said: “Someone said to me the worst thing you can do in this space is to be the first country that takes on the holistic regulation of the internet if that’s what we decide to do. But I don’t accept that.

“It seems to me that there is considerable merit in the United Kingdom, given the combination of features that I think the UK has, that it takes the lead. I think if global leadership for the UK means anything, it means being prepared to take the first step on issues like this.

“We also need the online companies to be responsible, we need them to be issuing whatever measures they can on the transparency of the messages they are carrying, but we also need frankly a public education response.

“We need all the help we can give to those reading the material as to where it’s come from, who’s put it up – if you’re talking about electoral material [that’s] even more important of course…”

Mr Wright concluded: “But my sense is that we’ve made some progress in the right direction with the online companies [but] not yet enough.”

This follows news today that Facebook has been formally fined the maximum penalty of £500,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office for failing to protect users’ personal information in the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. The ICO said the breaches of data protection laws had been “so serious” that it imposed the maximum fine after its investigation into the use of data analytics for “political purposes.”

“Facebook failed to sufficiently protect the privacy of its users before, during and after the unlawful processing of this data. A company of its size and expertise should have known better and it should have done better,” said Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner.

The committee meeting followed the government’s response to the DCMS interim report on disinformation and ‘fake news’ which committee chairman Damian Collins called “disappointing and a missed opportunity.” The government accepted just three of the 42 recommendations made as well as rejecting four recommendations and not responding to nine others.

Mr Collins said: “[The government] uses other ongoing investigations to further delay desperately needed announcements on the ongoing issues of harmful and misleading content being spread through social media.

“The Government’s response gives us no real indication of what action is being taken on this important issue.” The committee’s final fake news report on was expected in December.

A white paper was also currently being developed by the DCMS and would be due for publication before March 2019 and would outline where social media platforms should reduce or eliminate harmful content, and what legislation is necessary.