An angry committee comprised of 11 British members of Parliament traveled all the way to D.C. Thursday, where they accomplished a rare feat: They managed to make Silicon Valley sweat.
For hours, executives from major tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, were lambasted by members of the British Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee over their failure to regulate fake news, disinformation campaigns, and illegal content on their platforms. Compared with the qualified praise for Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit that marked the hearings held by Congress in November, the U.K. politicians held nothing back.
"Why has your self-regulation so demonstrably failed and how many chances do you need?” asked Conservative parliamentarian Julian Knight, scolding officials from YouTube over a recent Wall Street Journal report outlining how YouTube’s recommendation algorithms tend to surface extremist or misleading content.
The committee members grilled the senior executives and expressed “shock” and “frustration” with their frankly “unambitious” efforts to combat misleading or illegal content. The talks took place across three sessions held at the Marvin Center at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., part of a daylong event featuring discussions with technology and political experts.
The unusual Washington-based series of hearings is just the British government’s — and to a larger extent, Europe’s — latest effort to pressure Silicon Valley into taking more aggressive action over illegal and false content on digital platforms.
“Companies simply cannot stand by while their platforms are used to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery, or the spreading of terrorist and extremist content,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.
British officials have been pressing Facebook, in particular, about whether Russian government interference played a role in the run-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016. The U.K. Electoral Commission lambasted Facebook in January for failing to turn up any relevant material in its initial investigation, though the company now says it’s going to share results of a second investigation with the Commission later this month.
But on Thursday, the faces of Facebook, Google, and Twitter put themselves in the hot seat, as U.K. politicians lit into them for their failure to properly address the crises. Unlike in the U.S., where politicians have been reluctant to pursue aggressive policy action — and where Silicon Valley pumped almost $50 million into lobbying last year — substantial government regulation or enforcement action is starting to seem like a real possibility in the U.K.
One exchange, between Labour MP Ian Lucas and Facebook U.K. policy chief Simon Milner, particularly typified the fight taking shape between Silicon Valley and the U.K. government, and offered an across-the-Atlantic parallel to a similar fight in the U.S. over what obligation Facebook has to make sure advertisers on its platform align with election laws.
After Milner admitted Facebook does not do anything to “prevent” foreign buyers from illegally purchasing political ads in the U.K., he defended the company’s inaction by calling “a matter for the person paying for the ad, that they have to ensure that they comply with the law.”
The reasoning drew a sharp response.
“No, it’s a matter for you, because you are not complying with the law either, because you are facilitating an illegal act,” Lucas replied angrily. “See, this is the problem: You have everything, you have all the information, you have all this information. We have none of it. Because you won’t show it to us.”