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Oscar Williams

News editor

Social media sites should be subjected to algorithmic audits, say MPs

The era of social media companies marking their own homework must come to an end, an influential committee of MPs has warned.

In a long-anticipated report, the DCMS select committee has called for the government to grant the “appropriate body” the power to carry out comprehensive audits of tech firms.

“Just as the finances of companies are audited and scrutinised, the same type of auditing and scrutinising should be carried out on the non-financial aspects of technology companies, including their security mechanisms and algorithms, to ensure they are operating responsibly,” the DCMS select committee’s report states.

“The Government should provide the appropriate body with the power to audit these companies, including algorithmic auditing, and we reiterate the point that the ICO’s powers should be substantially strengthened in these respects,” it adds.

The report does not specify which regulator should be given these powers, but they are likely to fall, at least to some extent, under the remit of the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK’s data protection watchdog.

The report comes just days after Facebook suffered one of the biggest share price drops in corporate history. Some $119bn was wiped off the social media’s market cap after it emerged that its active user counts fell in Europe following the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the introduction of sweeping new privacy laws.

The 89 page document may make for uncomfortable reading for the company’s executives. MPs singled out the social media giant for its lack of cooperation and transparency. “Tech companies reward what is most engaging, because engagement is part of their business model and their growth strategy,” the report states. “This manipulation of the sites by tech companies must be made more transparent. Facebook has all of the information. Those outside of the company have none of it, unless Facebook chooses to release it.”

The fact that companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google use algorithms to shape the content seen by their users means they cannot be classified as platforms, the report says. But neither does it consider them publishers. Instead, a third category should be created, the committee says, to tighten the rules social media companies abide by.

We recommend that a new category of tech company is formulated, which tightens tech companies’ liabilities, and which is not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher’,” the report states. It adds that the committee expects the government to flesh out the details of such proposals in a whitepaper later this year.