Legislators see a way to rein in tech, but it’s not smooth.
WASHINGTON – “Facebook and BigTech are facing a major tobacco moment,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said this week when a whistleblower testified to how the social media company’s products harmed teens. Delivered
“I think that’s a good analogy,” Senator Cynthia Lams, Republican of Wyoming, added later.
The whistleblower’s testimony, and the thousands of internal documents he shared with lawmakers, created an extraordinary two-way bipartisanship in divided Washington. The senators said it was time for Congress to come up with new rules and regulations to rein in the company and perhaps the technology industry as a whole.
But if Big Tech is faced with something like what happened to Big Tobacco – the damage it does to industry society and children in particular – what lies ahead is the complex roadmap of new regulations over the years. Yes, there is no guarantee of results
Washington is considering a number of proposals to reduce industry and make it more accountable. Some lawmakers have called for a re-enactment of a law that protects tech companies from litigation, replacing them so that firms can be held accountable if their software promotes harmful speech. Another idea will force social media companies to share far more insights about their software, which is often a black box, and data on how people interact with their services. ۔
Lawmakers have proposed creating a new federal agency dedicated to overseeing tech companies, or extending the powers of the Federal Trade Commission. They have enacted strong rules to regulate children’s privacy and security and advertising business models related to Facebook and Google’s behavior. And a handful of bills to review no-confidence laws have slipped out of the House committee, with the public looking less dependent on a small number of tech companies.
But passing one of these options is a stepping stone. Tech companies are floating in wealth and using it to subdue lawmakers, forming the largest lobby of any industry in Washington. Dozens of privacy and speech bills have stalled in Congress in recent years.
The problems are also complex. Sharing too much data with researchers could, some say, harm people’s privacy. Even attempts to regulate content on platforms such as Facebook in a limited way raise concerns about free speech.
Perhaps the best opportunity to crack down on the industry is if President Biden and his administration work hard. It has not yet weighed in on any bill, but it has placed some of the industry’s leading critics in top regulatory jobs. Lena Khan, chair of the FTC, and Jonathan Canter, nominee to run the Justice Department’s antitrust division, have vowed to curb the power of companies.
Alan Brandt, a Harvard professor and expert on the rise and fall of the tobacco industry, said, “Facebook has had great success this week, but it has the potential to be as successful as the tobacco industry.”
The first published research on the dangers of cigarettes took more than 50 years and a whistleblower more than a decade after sharing internal documents proved that tobacco companies hid knowledge about the evils of their products. Regulation, he said.
Mr Brandt said: “There will be regulation for Facebook and other tech companies, but I am skeptical of any soon-to-be-successful regulation.”
The European Union has been more aggressive over the years than the United States on other issues, including mistrust of tech companies and data privacy. Last week’s testimony by Facebook whistleblower Francis Hagen has spurred calls for adoption of proposals that would impose stricter policing laws on the platforms of Facebook and other Internet companies and on digital. We will include strict competition rules in an effort to reduce their dominance. Economy laws could be adopted early next year.
But in Washington, a major hurdle to legislation is that Democrats and Republicans view tech power and speech issues differently on social media. Democrats want to spread misinformation and promote harmful political rhetoric, while Republicans say Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social media platforms censor conservative views.
And when it comes to questions about breaking up companies, many Democrats see the no-confidence motion as a way to slow down the highly powerful tech platform and address data privacy, security and misinformation. Some Republicans say there is a lot of competition in the industry, and breaking up companies would be an example of government overstepping.
Christine Wilson, a Republican member of the FTC, recently told Congress, “Just because we have a hammer of distrust in our hands doesn’t mean we should take every trouble as a nail.” Let’s not risk destroying our entire economy. “
Facebook, Google and Twitter have said they welcome more government surveillance, signaling strict data privacy laws and support for a dedicated agency to regulate the technology industry. But he also warns that many state and federal proposals could be overturned by strengthening no-confidence laws, banning data collection and holding companies responsible for harmful speech.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the whistleblower’s claim that the company preferred profit over safety was “extremely illogical”. The company has also rejected comparisons with the tobacco industry.
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said it was a ridiculous comparison. “Social media helps people connect and grow small businesses. Instead of creating false equations, the focus should be on updated regulation to address privacy, data portability, content quality and selection.”
But several lawmakers said comparing industries was not hyperbole, and in fact instructive.
State investigators have uncovered the secret marketing plans of tobacco company RJ Reynolds, a cartoon showrunner who uses camels to turn children into smokers, in a lawsuit filed against the company. Assisted and assisted legislators in action.
Some internal documents that Ms. Hagen shared with lawmakers show that many teens felt bad about their body image after spending time on Instagram, Facebook’s photo-sharing app, and sometimes their Expressed plans to harm you. Other documents show the company is studying how to market young children.
Mr Blumenthal, who led a successful lawsuit against Big Tobacco in the 1990s while he was attorney general in Connecticut, said he was immediately impressed by the importance of the documents.
“It was a light bulb, and all the memories are reminiscent of the paperwork done by the tobacco companies after they reached middle schools,” he said. “It was like you could rearrange words and replace them with ‘tobacco.'”
He also noted that tech is not exactly like the tobacco industry. Tech has broad legal concerns that prevent the state attorney general from prosecuting companies, as it did.
A law passed under Section 230 of the Communications Density Act, 1996, prevents companies from posting comments, images and other content on their sites in most cases. As a result, if a user posts harm to someone, the public – and the government – have little recourse against the companies.
Mr Blumenthal supports revising the law to reduce those concerns. It has introduced a bill that would remove the shield if services allow the spread of child abuse images. Other lawmakers have proposed eliminating legal protections when companies’ algorithms increase – through automatic advertising, recommendation and rating – which violates certain anti-terrorism and civil rights laws. ۔
Ms Hagen said such changes, given the possibility of lawsuits, would force Facebook and other social media companies to stop using software that prioritizes engagement and advertising highly harmful content. Are
But Mr Blumenthal seemed to admit that change would not come soon.
He said the battle would not be fought in the courtroom.
“Congress needs to work,” she said. “I have all the options on the table, but even in this polarizing environment, I am encouraged by our mutual concern.”