Addictive Tech Under Investigation in U.K. by Senior Lawmakers

(Bloomberg) -- The British lawmakers that fought with Facebook Inc. executives throughout 2018 over the company’s role in the spreading of fake news have begun a new investigation into addictive technology.

The investigators, which held their first evidence-gathering session Tuesday in London, are examining the role "immersive and addictive technologies" have on society, and particular on young children. Social media, video-games, virtual reality, and the compulsive use of smartphones, are all in the spotlight.

Damian Collins, the senior policy maker who spearheaded the fake news inquiry, said Tuesday that he was concerned technology companies weren’t transparent enough about how they use personal data, and that regulators don’t necessarily have access to proprietary systems to check it’s being handled appropriately.

"If you put too much sugar in a drink, there’s a tax to pay for that," Collins said during his initial questions. "Is it right that a technology should be run by an algorithm that rewards people the longer they play?"

Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute and one of the three academics that gave initial evidence, said it wouldn’t be wise to make decisions about regulation based on such an analogy. Unlike a sugary beverage, which can be purchased and tested in a lab, he said, technology companies iterate products over time without the public ever really noticing, and so a different type of regulation would be needed in this case.

Przybylski, asked whether video-game publishers should issue "broad warnings" to customers of their products, warned that such notices would be highly subjective and risk alienating shoppers for the wrong reasons.

"The pre-existing biases of researchers paint dramatically different pictures," he said. "There’s a game like Fortnite that teenagers use more for socializing rather than running around killing, and by slapping an advisory on it we wind up taking away their digital water cooler because we scared their parents." Much more independent research was needed before issuing any kind of regulatory guidance, he said.

Sarah Jones, head of the Birmingham School of Media at Birmingham City University, said there was a role for government in overseeing the virtual-reality technology industry, but it was unclear how how regulation would be implemented.

"We haven’t got guidelines about how long we should be in a virtual reality experience for," she said. "I don’t think we’ve got enough data to know how it can impact people."

Other issues raised by the lawmakers included the use of loot boxes in video-games, and whether the public had enough knowledge about how their personal data was used by companies that develop them.

The committee investigating addictive technologies is made up of the same lawmakers that questioned a string of high-profile experts and executives last year in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, including whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, and Facebook executives Richard Allan and Mike Schroepfer.

In an interview in December, Collins said last year’s investigation directly influenced the planning for a follow-up inquiry.

"Through the course of that inquiry we’ve become increasingly interested in this whole issue around the ethics and social responsibility the companies have," he said, adding that the impact on mental health such firms’ products had was a priority to be understood.

"There are lots of really important issues that came up in the inquiry that we thought merited a deeper investigation," he said.

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