Google and Facebook should be regulated for news content, UK government report says

By Elizabeth Schulze

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Online platforms including Google, Facebook and Apple should be regulated in how they distribute news content, according to a new U.K. government report.

The report, published Tuesday, said a state regulator should ensure tech firms are taking steps to help users identify trustworthy, reliable news on their platforms. It said the regulator would require companies like Facebook and Google to build on initiatives they have already established to weed out fake content.

"This task is too important to leave entirely to the judgment of commercial entities," the report said.

Online sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been under fire for allowing fake content to spread on their platforms. The companies have been investing in security measures to eliminate false accounts and misinformation, but the U.K. government report said these efforts should be enforced by a government agency. It also said they should sign a "code of conduct" to govern their commercial agreements with publishers.

"The experience of the last decade has shown that it is perfectly possible for social media platforms to be immensely profitable while simultaneously carrying a large quantity of fake news," it said.

British Prime Minster Theresa May commissioned the report in 2018 to investigate the "sustainability of the production and distribution of high-quality journalism." The independent review included contributions from publishers, advertisers, journalists, academics and industry groups.

The U.K. report's findings could add weight to the case for further regulation of tech companies in Britain and across Europe. The recommendations in the report are non-binding and will now be considered by the U.K. government.

The report called on the U.K.'s competition authority to investigate the online advertising industry to "ensure fair competition." Google and Facebook accounted for an estimated 54 percent of online advertising revenue in the U.K. in 2017.

"The government must take steps to ensure the position of Google and Facebook does not do undue harm to publishers," the report said.

Last week Germany's antitrust watchdog ruled Facebook had abused its market dominance in how it collects and merges user data. The authority said Facebook cannot combine data from separate apps like Instagram and WhatsApp without users' consent. Facebook said it is appealing the decision.

Legal experts say antitrust authorities in Europe may be well-placed to lead the charge against tech companies in the region.

"Competition agencies are often more experienced and better resourced than data protection agencies and hence in a better position to successfully build the case against a big company like Facebook," said Anu Bradford, a professor and director of the European Legal Studies Center at Columbia Law School, in an email to CNBC last week.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, is currently investigating Google for antitrust violations in its advertising business. The Commission has already levied two record fines on the company for abusing antitrust rules with its Android devices and its comparison shopping service.