Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, Wednesday led a chorus of concerned voices in calling for curbs on what they described as the outsize influence of Google, Facebook and Twitter on information on the internet.
At an event organized by the Open Markets Institute, Sen. Franken expressed alarm at the power these three companies have acquired on the Internet and questioned their ability to handle it in a responsible manner.
“As tech giants become a new kind of Internet gatekeeper, I believe the same basic principles of net neutrality should apply here," Franken said. "No one company should have the power to pick and choose which content reaches consumers and which doesn’t," he said.
Just like ISPs, companies such as Google and Facebook should be required to be neutral in the treatment of information flowing over their networks, the lawmaker said.
Open Market is a former project of New America, a Washington D.C.-based think tank funded by Google and its parent company Alphabet's executive chairman Eric Schmidt.
New America came under fire recently for firing Open Market's director and cutting loose the think tank for supporting the European Union's massive $2.9 billion antitrust fine on Google earlier this year.
Franken's comments at Open Market event follow last week's Congressional hearings into what Google, Facebook and Twitter may have known about Russia-sponsored misinformation campaigns on their platforms during last year's election. They highlight the growing mistrust in Washington over the behavior of the three tech giants.
Franken said many lawmakers grappling with the revelations about Russia's manipulation of social media are shocked at the extent to which technology companies are guiding what Americans see, read and buy on a regular basis.
Given their growing dominance over the flow of information on the Internet the time has come for lawmakers to consider their role in the integrity of American democracy, he said.
Last week's hearings showed that Google and the other companies may not be up to the challenges that they have created for themselves Franken said. When a company for instance has five million advertisers a month using its automated ad platforms it becomes almost impossible for the company to catch things like someone paying for U.S. election ads in rubles.
"The platforms that big tech have designed may now be so large and so unruly that we can't trust the companies it get it right even when they do starting paying attention."
Franken said he is also extremely concerned about how Google and Facebook are using the personal information of Americans to further consolidate market power and exert unfair influence over content creators who need their platforms to reach audiences. Once these companies assume dominance over the data of Americans they can more easily erect barriers to entry for the competition.
"It has become alarmingly clear in recent month these companies have unprecedented power to guide American access to information and potentially to shape the future of journalism."
Several others at the Open Market Institute event expressed similar sentiments. “The most existential threat is the one that comes from these platform monopolies," said Zephyr Teachout of the Open Markets Institute and associate professor of Law at Fordham University.
"These companies exercise a kind of social, commercial, informational and democratic news community power that is unlike power we have seen exercised from other political or economic actors," Teachout said.