Damning new revelations about Facebook’s role in the deadly January 6 insurrection have renewed lawmakers’ resolve to crack down on Silicon Valley, teeing up a potential watershed moment that will test the powerful industry’s clout on Capitol Hill.
In recent years, there’s been growing bipartisan support to rein in online platforms by breaking up Big Tech or overhauling the legal protections for internet companies, as lawmakers from both parties have complained about industry abuses and given up hope that tech giants will regulate themselves. Those efforts, however, have so far floundered.
But new disclosures about how Big Tech’s behavior is having a corrosive impact on society — from failing to tamp down the “Stop the Steal” movement that fueled violence at the Capitol to pushing algorithms that funnel harmful content to teenagers and children — are bolstering cross-the-aisle calls for change.
“It just continues to add momentum, that people expect Congress to do something about this, that we can no longer just ignore it,” said Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust laws. “Every day, these stories are adding to the urgency of getting this done. And yes, I think it’s finally going to happen in this Congress.”
Yet it’s still unclear whether anger will actually translate into action on Capitol Hill, where reforms have so far remained elusive and partisan divides remain over what Congress’ oversight role should look like. Republicans are more concerned over the alleged censorship of conservative voices and privacy issues, whereas Democrats are focused on tackling the spread of disinformation and hate speech online. If the debate is centered on the thorny issue of policing free speech or narrowly focused on January 6, some fear that reform efforts could turn off Republicans and ultimately stall out.
Meanwhile, Facebook — which is one of the top political spenders in Washington — is already beginning to mount a vigorous defense as it faces perhaps its biggest crisis in the company’s 17-year history. Any effort to target their algorithms would impact a core part of their business model, posing a major potential threat to their bottom line.
“With enormous economic power very often comes enormous political power, and they are spending millions and millions of dollars flooding this town with lobbyists and campaign contributions, doing everything they can to stop these reforms,” Cicilline said. “This is the reason that battles against monopolies are hard.”
‘The time for self-regulation is over’
Still, longtime proponents of curbing the tech industry’s power feel optimistic that the tides are finally turning in their favor, and are vowing to push for legislation that would stop online platforms from amplifying content that promotes conspiracy theories, incites extremism or harms young people.
Lawmakers believe one way to solve the problem is to hold companies accountable for their algorithms and change Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields internet companies from being held liable for the content posted by its users.
There are several Section 230 bills being kicked around on Capitol Hill, but one measure introduced this month by Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, would remove absolute immunity if platforms use personalized algorithms to knowingly or recklessly recommend content and it ends up causing physical or emotional harm.
Instead of focusing on policing user-generated content — a far more politically fraught debate — this legislation would target how companies recommend content to its users.
“There is growing consensus that the time for self-regulation is over, and my Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act answers that call,” Pallone, an ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said in a statement to CNN. “Designing personalized algorithms that promote harmful content is a conscious choice, and platforms should have to answer for it.”
The measure, however, currently has no Republican co-sponsors, meaning even if it passes the House, it would face an uphill climb in the 50-50 Senate, where legislation requires 60 votes to break a filibuster.
Members of the GOP have introduced their own proposals taking aim at the legal shield that protects tech titans, but their efforts are more focused on ensuring platforms don’t police content based on a user’s viewpoints or political affiliations.
A draft discussion bill from Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, would require companies to be more transparent about their content moderation decisions.
“The Facebook Papers reports illustrate that Big Tech and Legacy Media companies are not just hysterically anti-conservative — they are against any idea that doesn’t fit their narrative,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said in a statement Monday. “What they are doing is a particularly dangerous practice of misinformation.”
There does appear to be more bipartisan support for efforts to protect kids’ mental health. The draft legislation from Jordan and McMorris Rodgers would also require Big Tech companies to disclose the mental health impacts of their products on children and require a study on whether warning labels are warranted on social media.
And Sens. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, have previously teamed up on legislation to remove legal protections for online companies that share child pornography.
Blumenthal, chairman of a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee, has also hosted a series of hearings designed to shed light on the potential harms of social media companies on children. Another hearing is scheduled for Tuesday featuring Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube.
“Facebook is obviously unable to police itself as its powerful algorithms drive deeply harmful content to children and fuel hate,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “This resoundingly adds to the drumbeat of calls for reform, rules to protect teens, and real transparency and accountability from Facebook and its Big Tech peers.”
Antitrust legislation and beyond
Lawmakers believe another way to attack the problem is to restore competition in the marketplace. The House Judiciary Committee passed a package of antitrust bills this summer with the support of several Republicans, following the panel’s 16-month investigation into competition in the digital marketplace. But the measures have yet to receive a floor vote in the House.
Cicilline, however, said he expects the bills to be considered by the full House before the end of this year. He also said the Democratic Caucus was planning to host a dinner meeting Monday evening with Tim Wu, the special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy, to discuss competition policy more broadly.
And Sens. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, and Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, also recently introduced a Senate companion to one of the antitrust measures, in another sign of potential movement.
But some Republicans are skeptical. They think Democrats are just using the new explosive whistleblower allegations about Facebook as an excuse to push their longtime priorities, arguing those bills aren’t the best way to tackle the issue.
Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower who testified before Congress this month, has advocated for a government backed regulatory agency to scrutinize business practices and come up with regulations. She also encouraged lawmakers to focus on targeting algorithms, which companies have control over, as opposed to user content.
“Modifying 230 around content is very complicated, because user-generated is something that companies have less control over,” she said. “They have 100% control over their algorithms. And Facebook should not get a free pass on choices it makes to prioritize growth and virality and reactiveness over public safety.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg kicked off Facebook’s quarterly earnings call by addressing the latest wave of coverage on Monday.
“Good-faith criticism helps us get better, but my view is that we are seeing a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company,” he said. “The reality is that we have an open culture that encourages discussion and research on our work so we can make progress on many complex issues that are not specific just to us.”
The select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection is also looking into Facebook’s role and is in talks with the company and other tech platforms “to get certain information.”
“At this point, Facebook is working with us to provide the necessary information we requested,” Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the chairman of the House select committee investigating the January 6 riot, told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
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