Lawmakers see the way to harness tech, but it’s not easy

WASHINGTON – “Facebook and Big Tech are facing a Big Tobacco moment,” said Connecticut Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal this week when a whistleblower testified about how the company’s social media products were harming teens .

“I think that’s an appropriate analogy,” Wyoming Republican Senator Cynthia Lummis later added.

The whistleblower’s testimony and the thousands of internal documents she shared with lawmakers generated unusual bipartisan bonhomie in a divided Washington. Senators said it was time for Congress to rally around new regulations to curb the business and perhaps the tech industry as a whole.

But if what Big Tech faces is like what happened to Big Tobacco – a calculation of the damage the industry has done to society, and children in particular – what lies ahead is likely to be a complicated road of several years. towards new rules and regulations, without guarantee of result.

Washington is weighing many proposals to restrict the industry and hold it more accountable. Some lawmakers have urged reworking a law that protects tech companies from lawsuits, amending it so that companies can be held accountable if their software amplifies harmful speech. Another idea would force social media companies to share a lot more information about their software, which is often a black box, and data about how people interact with their services.

Lawmakers have proposed creating a new federal agency dedicated to overseeing tech companies, or expanding the power of the Federal Trade Commission. They have imposed stricter laws for the privacy and safety of children and to regulate the behavioral advertising business models of Facebook and Google. And a handful of bills to revise antitrust laws, in an effort to make the public less dependent on a small number of tech companies, have come out of a House committee.

But passing any of these options is a steep climb. Tech companies swim in wealth and use it to influence lawmakers, creating the largest army of lobbyists of any industry in Washington. Dozens of privacy and speech protection bills have stalled in Congress in recent years.

The issues are also complex. Sharing much more data with researchers, some argue, could invade people’s privacy. Attempts to even tightly regulate content on platforms like Facebook run into free speech problems.

Perhaps the best chance for a crackdown on the industry is for President Biden and his administration to act with force. He has yet to put his weight behind the bills, but has placed some of the industry’s top critics in top regulatory positions. Lina Khan, president of the FTC, and Jonathan Kanter, the candidate for head of the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, have vowed to hamper corporate power.

“Facebook has taken a hard hit this week, but they are capable of taking many hits just like the tobacco industry,” said Allan Brandt, a Harvard professor and expert on the rise and fall of the industry. tobacco.

It took more than 50 years from the first published research into the dangers of cigarettes, and more than a decade after a whistleblower shared internal documents proving tobacco companies were hiding their knowledge of the ailments of their people. products, before there is a meaningful government. regulation, he said.

“There will be regulation for Facebook and other tech companies,” Mr. Brandt said, “but I’m skeptical of a path to successful regulation anytime soon.”

The European Union has for years been more aggressive against technology companies than the United States, on issues such as antitrust and data privacy. Testimony last week from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen stepped up calls to pass proposals that would impose stricter rules on how Facebook and other internet companies monitor their platforms, and add competition rules. more stringent in order to reduce their digital dominance. economy. The laws could be passed as early as next year.

But in Washington, a major obstacle to legislation is that Democrats and Republicans view issues of technological power and social media rhetoric differently. Democrats want to tackle the spread of disinformation and the amplification of nefarious political rhetoric, while Republicans argue that Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social media platforms censor conservative views.

And when it comes to whether to dissolve companies, many Democrats see antitrust measures as a way to slow down the most powerful tech platforms and fight privacy, security and disinformation. Datas. Some Republicans say there is a lot of competition in the industry, and breaking up companies would be an example of government overtaking.

“Just because we hold the hammer of antitrust law in our hands doesn’t mean we have to treat every concern like a nail, lest we risk bludgeoning our entire economy,” Republican member Christine Wilson recently told Congress. of the FTC.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have said they welcome increased government scrutiny, signaling their support for stricter data privacy rules and a dedicated agency regulating the tech sector. But they also warn that many state and federal proposals to strengthen antitrust laws, restrict data collection and hold companies accountable for damaging speech could backfire.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the whistleblower’s claims that the company prioritized profits over security were “deeply illogical.” The company also rejected comparisons with the tobacco industry.

“It’s an absurd comparison,” said Andy Stone, spokesperson for Facebook. “Social media helps people connect and small businesses thrive. Instead of making false equivalents, the focus should be on updated regulations to address privacy, data portability, content standards and elections. “

But many lawmakers said the comparison of industries was not hyperbole and was in fact informative.

State investigators uncovered tobacco company RJ Reynolds’ secret marketing plans to use cartoon mascot Joe Camel to turn kids into smokers, a finding that has helped substantiate lawsuits against the company and urge lawmakers to act.

Some of the internal documents Ms Haugen shared with lawmakers showed that many teens felt bad about their body image after spending time on Instagram, Facebook’s photo-sharing app, sometimes to the point of express plans to harm oneself. Other documents showed the company was investigating how it could market even younger children.

Mr Blumenthal, who successfully led a lawsuit against Big Tobacco in the 1990s as a Connecticut attorney general, said the importance of the documents immediately struck him.

“It was a light bulb, and all memories came back from the strategy papers drafted by the tobacco companies to reach college kids,” he said. “It was as if you could just rearrange the words and replace them with ‘tobacco’.”

He also noted that the technology is not exactly like the tobacco industry. The technology has broad legal protections that prevent state attorneys general from suing companies the way it has.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law passed in 1996, protects businesses from most lawsuits for comments, photos and other content that users post on their sites. As a result, if someone is hurt by what a user posts, the public – and the government – have little recourse against the companies.

Mr. Blumenthal supports the revision of this law to reduce these protections. He pushed for a bill that would remove the shield if services allowed the broadcast of child abuse images. Other lawmakers have proposed removing legal protection when corporate algorithms amplify – by promoting, recommending, and automatically ranking high – content that violates certain anti-terrorism and civil rights laws.

Ms Haugen said such changes, resulting in the possibility of lawsuits, would force Facebook and other social media companies to stop using software that prioritizes engaging and promoting the most damaging content.

But Mr Blumenthal appeared to recognize that any change would not happen quickly.

“This battle will not take place in the courtroom,” he said.

“Congress must act,” Lummis said. “I keep all options on the table, but even in this polarizing environment, I am encouraged by the bipartisan concern we have here.”

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