Government data ethics body urges revamp of social media regulation

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation has claimed that ‘current mechanisms are inadequate’

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The UK government should overhaul the regulation of social media companies to provide greater control over how users are targeted by digital content, according to the government’s independent advisors on data-driven technology.

In a new report, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation found that online targeting systems, which are used to promote content in social media feeds, recommend videos, target adverts, and personalise search engine results, will continue to grow in sophistication, while being used in new ways and for new purposes.

It warned that targeting systems “too often operate without sufficient transparency and accountability”, and that their use currently falls short of the OECD human-centred principles on AI, which set standards for the ethical use of technology.

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It says: “Online targeting has been blamed for a number of harms. These include the erosion of autonomy and the exploitation of people’s vulnerabilities; potentially undermining democracy and society; and increased discrimination. The evidence for these claims is contested, but they have become prominent in public debate about the role of the internet and social media in society. Online targeting has helped to put a handful of global online platform businesses in positions of enormous power to predict and influence behaviour. However, current mechanisms to hold them to account are inadequate.”

The report also describes the operation and impact of online targeting systems as “opaque”, and although research suggests the public do not want targeting to be stopped, they support higher standards of accountability and transparency in the technology’s use.

Writing in the foreword, the centre’s chair, Roger Taylor, said: “In making our recommendations we are proposing actions that kickstart the process of working out how public expectations can best be met. Some of it requires greater regulation – and that requires systemic and coordinated approaches that focus first on the areas of greatest concern – such as the impact of social media on mental health.”

He added: “The world will be looking at the UK’s approach and it is vital that new internet regulation protects human rights such as freedom of expression and privacy. But it also requires innovation: innovation in the way that we regulate and innovation in the way the targeting systems are built and operated.

“Our recommendations are designed to encourage both. By emphasising the need for a regulator to have powers to investigate how targeting systems operate, we recognise that better understanding will lead to more effective and proportionate regulation.”


Sam Trendall

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