Congress to Hold Hearings on Social Media, Big Tech Regulation Issues

NEWS ANALYSIS: The impact of social media and large technology companies on society has grown to the point that many in Congress feel that it is time to consider regulations to protect consumer privacy and defend against foreign disinformation.

Social Media, Privacy Regulation Legislation

WASHINGTON—After the scandal created by the revelations that Cambridge Analytica misused the personal information of 87 million Facebook users, members of Congress began considering ways to rein in the unbridled power of social media companies and the companies known on Capitol Hill as Big Tech. 

To that end, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), co-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, put together a white paper that contains a list of 20 proposals for regulating social media companies and those big technology companies. Senator Warner discussed those proposals in a wide-ranging interview with eWEEK. 

Warner is a tech-savvy legislator with a background in communications. He was the founder of Nextel and points out that he’s been in the technology business longer than he’s been in the Senate. With that background, he looked at Russian interference in the 2016 election and at other recent failures of public trust—notably at Facebook—as a part of his work on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

With that background, he compiled that list of those 20 regulatory proposals, some of which he says are close to the point where they could be turned into legislation and others that were offered as points of discussion on the issues.

“We have to educate members about this,” Warner said. He said that already technology is moving faster than the laws ever could, and because of this, private industry is taking action in ways that you might expect governments to work in other cases. He mentioned Microsoft’s continuing efforts to shut down Russian espionage sites and Facebook’s recent expulsion of hundreds of fake accounts being used for disinformation. 

“The white paper is meant to spark a long overdue discussion,” Warner explained in a follow-up email. “Some of the ideas proposed are more suitable for near-term legislation than others. The majority of the concerns highlighted in the white paper are related to social media platforms.” 

Part of the process will be to hold hearings in which social media companies will be asked to explain their actions to protect users’ information and to fight misuse of their platforms. The first of those hearings are set for Sept. 5 in Washington. Warner said that representatives from Google, Twitter and Facebook have been asked to testify. 

“My hope is that I can get some of them react to some of these ideas,” he said. 

In his paper, Warner notes that the capacity for fast communications has been working to promote disinformation which in turn undermines trust in democracy, the free press and in markets. He points out that this threat isn’t new, but the advent of platforms such as Facebook have enhanced the spread of disinformation. He also said that new aspects of consumer protection have to be considered because of the role that online platforms are playing in people’s lives. 

One of the areas Warner mentions in his paper is the practice of user tracking. “User tracking can have important consumer benefits,” he says in his paper, including making ads more relevant and enhancing the user experience, but he says that the resulting user profiles, “could provide opportunities for consumer harm—and in surreptitious, undetectable ways.” 

Warner puts the issue of disinformation and misinformation at the top of his list. He’s suggesting that online services have a duty to clearly and conspicuously label bots. In his interview, Warner discussed California legislation that requires letting people know when they’re being contacted by a bot versus a real person. 

On a related note, Warner worries about posts on social media coming from where they appear to be, rather than where they actually are. “There should there be some sort of method to indicate when posts being not from where people say they are,” Warner said, pointing out that much of the disinformation that appeared on Facebook during the 2016 election was posted from Russia and elsewhere, rather from in the U.S., where the poster claimed to be. 

In a similar fashion, Warner says he thinks that online services need to be able to quickly identify inauthentic accounts. He called these a major enabler of disinformation, and included bots as well as accounts that are based on false identities, but he worries about mandatory identity verification and its impact on user privacy.  

“Mandatory identity verification is likely to arouse significant opposition from digital privacy groups and potentially from civil rights and human rights organizations who fear that such policies will harm at-risk populations,” he said in his paper. 

Other proposals would require some enabling legislation, such as opening up online services to liability for state-law torts such as defamation, public disclosure of private facts and false light (meaning to invade a non-public person’s privacy) due to their failure to remove fake or manipulated content. 

Some of the proposals, such as disclosure requirements for online political ads are already in the works, as are initiatives similar to the European Union’s General Data Protection Rules (GDPR) and giving the Federal Trade Commission rulemaking authority over privacy issues. California recently enacted its own Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 that follows the general outline of the GDPR. 

Warner has stressed repeatedly that it’s time to try making U.S. laws reflect the current reality of how technology impacts people. Rather he has said repeatedly, including in a USA Today op-ed, it’s time to learn from our failures. 

“Some people say don’t regulate because government is too slow,” Warner said. But he suggested that what’s needed is another way, such as industry self-regulation that would allow a way to keep up with current practices while still having the backing of legal authority. 

At this point, Warner’s white paper is just intended to be a set of proposals for discussions, but it’s clear that some of them could soon start becoming part of the legislative process. The fact that some of these proposals will be aired in the hearings that are set to begin in September and the fact that the leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee acts as a group rather than being fractured by partisan divisions suggests that the outcome of the 2018 mid-term elections is unlikely to have much impact on the progress of legislation. 

This means that we can expect some sort of regulation of social media companies, especially those that are part of Big Tech. We just need to wait for the details.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...