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Facebook the Focus of UK Ire Over Illegal Content

But company figures show enforcement increasing

This week has seen accusations fly in the UK that social media companies—Facebook in particular—aren’t doing enough to limit the proliferation of hate crime-related content, or responding quickly enough to government requests for data related to “life-or-death” situations. Facebook’s figures, however, beg to differ.

A report released on Monday by the UK House of Commons’ Home Affairs Committee declared that the leading social platforms were “shamefully far from taking sufficient action to tackle illegal and dangerous content,” to implement proper community standards or to keep their users safe. The report also stated that, “given their immense size, resources and global reach,” it is “completely irresponsible” of social networks to fail to abide by the law, and to keep their users and others safe.

The HAC report is part of the ongoing fallout from findings in February that ads from brands and UK government agencies were appearing alongside extremist content on social media. Programmatic advertising was eyed as a culprit in that case, but complaints have since expanded to social platforms’ seemingly slow or nonexistent responses to illegal material posted by their users more broadly—from terrorist recruitment videos to hate speech to sexual photos of children.

The report recommends that the next UK government (the one resulting from the June 8 general election) should assess whether failure to remove illegal material is in itself a crime and, if not, how the law should be strengthened. It also urges the government to contemplate a system of escalating sanctions to include “meaningful fines” for social media platforms that “fail to remove illegal content within a strict timeframe”—a move that is similar to one proposed recently in Germany—and calls for social media firms that fail to “proactively search for and remove illegal material” to contribute to the costs of the police doing so instead.

In addition to the HAC’s criticism, Facebook’s relationship with UK law enforcement has been making headlines this week, as well. The social media giant has come under attack by politicians for reportedly rejecting “one in five ‘emergency requests’ for information from police in the UK even though lives may be at risk,” according to The Telegraph.

The Telegraph’s “one in five” figure appears to be based on data Facebook released in its April 2017 “Government Requests Report,” which noted that the company provided “some data” to UK law enforcement for 80.4% of the 997 emergency requests for user information it received in the second half of 2016 across its four main properties—Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram.

Facebook also produced data for 90.3% of the nearly 5,300 legal process requests it received during that time, its report noted, and restricted 177 pieces of content.

Top 20 UK Digital Properties, Ranked by Unique Visitors, Dec 2016 (millions)

Those response rates were in line with similar activity in the year’s first half, when Facebook restricted 284 pieces of content. They’re also up from figures for the second half of 2013—the oldest comparable period for which data is available—when Facebook produced data for a combined 71% of UK emergency and legal requests but restricted only three pieces of content posted to its properties in the country.

The amount of illegal content on Facebook’s properties that was flagged as such by someone in 2016 is unknown. But based on its content restriction figures, Facebook removed far more content than in previous years.

Nonetheless, the company will need to be even more diligent to keep regulators at bay as its influence continues to expand. As of 2016, Facebook’s reach in the UK was wider than nearly any other digital player—and that’s only counting its flagship platform. Its namesake network was the UK’s second-largest digital property as ranked by unique users as of December 2016, behind only Google, according to comScore data cited by UKOM.

This year, 89.4% of UK social network users will access Facebook via any device at least once per month, eMarketer predicts, as will 60.1% of the country’s internet users and 49.3% of its population overall—equal to 32.7 million people. The challenge it faces in policing UK users’ posts will only get harder.

—Cliff Annicelli

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