On Thursday, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang put out a sweeping new tech policy proposal with a number of controversial proposals, including taxing digital ads and launching a new department to regulate algorithms on social networks.
Democratic candidates have struggled with how to respond to the growing power of tech companies, with left-leaning candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren supporting aggressive antitrust action, while moderates like Pete Buttigieg push for more a milder regulatory approach. Yang’s new proposal plots a middle course, proposing major new taxes and administrative oversight but stopping short of a call to break up Google and Facebook.
Yang has previously supported antitrust action, but only in the severest of circumstances, On Thursday, he explained what the government could do to lightly regulate them before resorting to breaking them up. In his Thursday blog post, Yang argues that his opponents’ calls to break-up big tech firms like Facebook and Google fall short of protecting consumers from companies that prioritize “profits over our well-being.”
Yang’s broad tech policy plan attacks the issues plaguing tech from four different angles: promoting a healthy relationship with tech, data ownership and privacy, fighting disinformation, and empowering the federal government with new guidelines and resources to tackle these issues.
Disinformation on social media
Ever since the 2016 election, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been under fire by public advocates and lawmakers for their failures to remove disinformation from their platforms. In his tech proposal, Yang piggybacks on his digital ads VAT, suggesting that if it were implemented, there would be less false information on social media because platforms would become subscription-based and not be forced to accept advertising at all, let alone misleading political ads.
There would also be significant new restrictions on how platforms like Facebook can target users with content. Any algorithms used by “platforms that allow political advertisements or the sharing of news stories” would be required to be open source or at least confidentially shared with Yang’s “Department of the Attention Economy.” All ads would have to be clearly labeled as such.
Aside from the tax and entirely new business model, Yang says he would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, one of the most pivotal laws governing the internet. His blog post isn’t very clear about what this amendment would look like or how much liability platforms would be exposed to under the new system. In a statement to The Verge, a spokesperson left the proposal purposefully vague, saying simply, “Andrew Yang will direct his administration to work with Congress and relevant stakeholders to amend CDA 230 to tackle accountability in a more effective way.” Yang also describes Section 230 using the controversial “publisher versus platform” framing that some experts have criticized as out of step with existing laws. “We must address once and for all the publisher vs. platform grey area that tech companies have lived in for years,” Yang said.
Data ownership and privacy
Earlier in his campaign, Yang said that data should be classified as property, and users should have certain rights over how their data is collected and used by tech companies. Yang offers more insight on what these rights would look like in Thursday’s proposal, and he pledges to pass a “Digital Bill of Rights, ensuring ownership of data, control over how it’s used, and compensation for its use” if he is elected president. Yang explains that consumers could choose to opt in to the collection of their data. But if they were, they should be paid a small fee for its use.
“You can waive these rights and opt in to sharing your data if you wish for the companies’ benefit and your own convenience,” Yang said. “But then you should receive a share of the economic value generated from your data.”
If they choose to waive these rights, users would receive a “slice of every digital ad” that uses their data through a value added tax on all digital advertising. This tax would, in theory, incentivize platforms like Facebook that make most of their money through advertising to shift to a paid subscription business model. A digital ads tax would revolutionize the tech industry in ways it hasn’t been forced to address so far.
Guidance, not antitrust
Yang supports a new approach to modern antitrust in his new policy platform as well, but he doesn’t support breaking up Big Tech. His plan places him as Elizabeth Warren’s opposite number in her fight to break up Big Tech, a proposal Yang does not support. “Breaking up Google into five mini-Googles wouldn’t change much, as people don’t want to use the fourth best search engine,” he said. Instead, Yang wants to revitalize Congress and the government with new tools and officials to help guide the industry in a healthier direction, rather than break it up entirely.
“In order to regulate technology effectively, our government needs to understand it. It’s embarrassing to see the ignorance some members of Congress display when talking about technology,” Yang said. “Anyone who watched Congress question Mark Zuckerberg is well aware of this.”
Yang has previously supported the revival of the Office of Technology Assessment in Congress, an idea that Elizabeth Warren later proposed as well. The office would supply Congress with new resources to learn how the tech industry functions and how best they could regulate it. That way, lawmakers wouldn’t be forced to learn about tech from the same people and lobbyists who work for it. The president has always met and consulted with industry leaders, but Yang wants to make a “Department of Technology” an official group at the cabinet level to provide a similar style of guidance as the OTA to the executive branch. This department would be based in Silicon Valley.
“There are certainly times when parts of a tech company should be divested based on traditional metrics, but other metrics beyond size and consumer impact—such as data assets, vertical integration, or lack of new business formation—should be considered as well,” Yang says.
Over the past few years, lawmakers and regulators have begun to perk up over video game publishers and their sale of loot boxes and microtransactions. In his proposal, Yang argued that publishers should be required to disclose the “draw probability for virtual items” and put limits on the sale of loot boxes, especially for children.
“Loot boxes are impacting our children, causing them to spend more time and money on these video games, without many parents being aware of their existence,” Yang said.
Tech’s health impacts
Design ethicists like former Googler Tristan Harris have warned of the threats tech poses to consumers, especially children. In the blog post outlining the plan, Yang vows to find solutions and help people develop a healthier relationship with technology. Importantly, Yang proposes an entirely new government body called the “Department of the Attention Economy,” which would provide guidelines for companies designing “smartphones, social media, gaming, and chat apps.” Some of those guidelines would be age-based as well. The Yang administration would create standards for companies creating services for children under 16, like removing autoplay video, infinite scrolling, and limiting the number of notifications they receive on social media.
“As the parent of two young children, I’m deeply concerned about technology and how it affects our kids,” Yang says in the policy. “We’re developing technology rapidly and we need to work together to get ahead when it comes to analyzing how it impacts our everyday lives and creating appropriate regulations.”
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