Lords hits out at Big Tech over internet privacy

Internet companies must impose the strongest privacy settings as a default and publish annual reports on how they use personal data, a cross-party House of Lords has said, in the latest attempt to regulate the sector.

Public concern has mounted in the UK and around the world about the amount of abusive material online and its effect on the mental health of young people in particular. Tech companies are also coming under more scrutiny surrounding such issues as user privacy and cyber security.

Facebook said on Thursday that it would concentrate on building products focused on privacy, after years of dealing with criticism about disinformation and bullying.

The report from the Lords communications committee, published on Saturday, comes ahead of a UK government white paper on online harms, which is expected in the next fortnight to set out increased regulation of technology companies.

The committee said that neither tech companies nor policymakers had taken enough serious steps to address the issues. It called for the creation of a new regulator — the “Digital Authority” — to co-ordinate existing regulators and identify gaps in legislation.

Stephen Gilbert, the Conservative chair of the committee, said: “Without intervention, the largest tech companies are likely to gain ever more control of technologies which extract personal data and make decisions affecting people’s lives.”

The opposition Labour party and a cross-party committee of MPs have also called for the establishment of a new body, but suggested it be a “super-regulator”, assuming powers currently held by Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office, among others

While the MPs’ report focused on Facebook’s role in spreading disinformation, the Lords expressed particular concern about the lack of transparency around algorithms. They said companies should explain what their algorithms do, and could receive a “kitemark” for adhering to the best data standards. The ICO has already set up a team, including University of Oxford researcher Reuben Binns, to develop a code of practice for algorithms.

The Lords committee also said that internet users should have the right to request “a statement from a data processor [such as a technology company] explaining how, if applicable, algorithms are used to profile them, deliver content or drive their behaviour.” The UK’s 2018 Data Protection Act and the EU’s General Data Protection Rules had “weaknesses”, the committee found.

There is a strong cross-party consensus in the UK that technology companies should face greater regulation. But with Brexit occupying much of the government’s attention, ministers have been slow to settle on solutions.

Jeremy Wright, the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, travelled to California last month to meet Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. Mr Wright has so far confirmed plans to impose a duty of care on online platforms, with large potential fines for those who do not comply.

Additional reporting by Madhumita Murgia and Tim Bradshaw in London


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