While companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple have certainly made our lives easier in many respects — you barely need to leave your home for anything anymore— their effect on society, the economy and politics hasn’t always been positive.
Now, as big tech’s influence continues to grow, lawmakers are left wondering how they can ensure these platforms aren’t abused, as we’ve so often seen lately.
To get the conversation going, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) is circulating a policy paper containing 20 suggestions on how to reign in the ever-changing industry.
In the 23-page document obtained by Axios, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Warner attempts to address the biggest problems created by tech giants: the spread of misinformation, breaches of privacy and a lack of competition within the industry.
“The size and reach of these platforms demand that we ensure proper oversight, transparency and effective management of technologies that in large measure undergird our social lives, our economy, and our politics,” the paper reads. “Numerous opportunities exist to work with these companies, other stakeholders, and policymakers to make sure that we are adopting appropriate safeguards to ensure that this ecosystem no longer exists as the 'Wild West' —unmanaged and not accountable to users or broader society — and instead operates to the broader advantage of society, competition, and broad-based innovation.”
The paper outlines 20 different policy proposals to address these concerns.
Warner prefaces the section with the following warning (emphasis mine):
In many cases there may be flaws in each proposal that may undercut the goal the proposal is trying achieve, or pose a political problem that simply can’t be overcome at this time. This list does not represent every idea, and it certainly doesn’t purport to answer all of the complex and challenging questions that are out there. The hope is that the ideas enclosed here stir the pot and spark a wider discussion among policymakers, stakeholders, and civil society groups on the appropriate trajectory of technology policy in the coming years.
With that in mind, here are a few of the solutions Warner is proposing:
- Cracking down on bots and fake, or “inauthentic,” accounts
- Opening up social media platforms to tort lawsuits
- Forcing certain platforms to provide “independent, public interest researchers” with access to anonymized activity data
- Increased transparency on political ads
- Combating foreign manipulation and cyber attacks
- Increasing “media literacy”
- Adopting policies similar to Europe’s recent GDPR regulations, such as first party consent
You can read the entire paper below.
Are Any of These Proposals the Right Move?
As Axios notes, Warner’s suggestions are rather ambitious and a bit far-reaching, making them unlikely to survive outside these pages, especially if Republicans manage to hold on to Congress during the 2018 midterms.
But while we may not see any of these policies officially imposed on the industry by the federal government, some tech giants are rolling out their own safeguards to protect themselves from further ignominy. Most notable is Facebook.
Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook redesigned its settings menu to make privacy settings easier to find and set. The company also promised to update its terms of service to make it more clear to users what personal data may be collected and how it will be used.
Since the 2016 election, Facebook has also actively worked to stop the spread of misinformation and false news by expanding its fact-checking program and cracking down on repeat offenders. Identifying and removing bad actors—those operating fake pages, groups, or accounts—has similarly been a priority.
Coincidentally on Tuesday, the day after Axios published the paper, Facebook announced it had shut down over two dozen more fake pages and accounts believed to be created by Russians. In its official statement, Facebook reiterated its commitment to stopping these kinds of bad actors.
We face determined, well-funded adversaries who will never give up and are constantly changing tactics. It’s an arms race and we need to constantly improve too. It’s why we’re investing heavily in more people and better technology to prevent bad actors misusing Facebook — as well as working much more closely with law enforcement and other tech companies to better understand the threats we face.
As we near the midterm elections, it's important to note that the company is also working towards increased transparency for all political or “issue” ads run on the platform.
Public pressure will likely continue to be the driving force behind such changes in the tech industry, not Congress—and rightly so. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg's hearing earlier this year revealed, many of our lawmakers don't even understand how these platforms operate.
What’s Missing From the Paper
There’s a fourth cause of concern that’s conveniently missing from Sen. Warner’s paper: alleged anti-conservative bias on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Earlier this year, Facebook was accused of censoring conservative voices after pro-Trump media personalities Diamond and Silk claimed the social media site had limited the reach of their posts and deemed their content "unsafe."
During his testimony on Capitol Hill, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for what he called an "enforcement error." However, the explanation did little to reassure conservatives.
In an effort to show the company is dedicated to protecting free speech and being an open platform for all ideas, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg refused to remove conspiracy theorists, like Holocaust deniers, from the site, despite immense pressure from the left and the right to do so.
"Look, as abhorrent as some of this content can be, I do think that it gets down to this principle of giving people a voice," Zuckerberg said in an interview with Recode.
When asked if this interferes with Facebook's commitment to stopping the spread of false news, Zuckerberg said he doesn't think so, although he admits it is a fine line.
"At the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong," he explained. "What we will do is we’ll say, 'Okay, you have your page, and if you’re not trying to organize harm against someone, or attacking someone, then you can put up that content on your page, even if people might disagree with it or find it offensive.' But that doesn’t mean that we have a responsibility to make it widely distributed in News Feed."
In other words, as long as their posts aren't crossing the line into incitement to violence, there's no reason to ban them from the platform.
Then, the following week, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be suspending Info Wars' Alex Jones' account for 30 days for violating the platform's policies against hate speech and bullying. Info Wars is a site that's notoriously known for pushing conspiracy theories.
Facebook isn't the only social media site to be accused of anti-conservative bias this past year.
Twitter was recently called out for “shadow-banning,” or limiting users' access to prominent Republicans on the site.
Twitter’s response to the allegation wasn’t all that reassuring.
this, uh, sounds a lot like shadowbanning pic.twitter.com/5q9fhbQnDf— Alex Griswold (@HashtagGriswold) July 27, 2018
In short:— Caleb Hull (@CalebJHull) July 27, 2018
"We don't shadow ban, we just make you invisible on our platform!" pic.twitter.com/MqYV1ajiCM
While Facebook and Twitter aren’t technically breaking any laws here, that doesn’t mean what they’re doing is right (that is, if they are, in fact, guilty of what they’re being accused of).
Allowing for open debate and the free exchange of ideas is just an important to the health our society as stopping the misuse of user data or the dissemination of false information.