How to Fix Social Media’s Big Problems? Lawmakers Have Ideas

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Fixing the privacy and misinformation failures plaguing big tech companies is no easy task — but on both sides of the Atlantic, lawmakers are attempting to jump-start policy conversations in a bid to tackle the issues.

The office of Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has written a paper outlining potential policies to regulate social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The suggestions made by Mr. Warner’s office aim to address how privacy, competition and public discourse are being affected by the misuse of those companies’ services.

The existence of the paper was first reported by Axios and confirmed by The New York Times.

In Britain, the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee also has published a report that provided the government with recommendations about how to achieve similar results.

Both documents stemmed from investigations into misinformation on social media platforms and offer some common solutions. For instance, the reports propose large tech companies should:

■ Undergo audits of their data and algorithms.

■ Be liable if they fail to take down illegal or damaging content.

■ Have a duty to identify and remove fake accounts.

■ Be subject to legislation demanding their transparency.

Many of the 20 policy proposals put forward by Mr. Warner’s office are specific to the United States. For example, the paper proposed the United States adopt sweeping new privacy legislation similar to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and provide the Federal Trade Commission with greater rule-making authority to protect the digital lives of consumers.

Talk of regulating big tech companies began to gain momentum after it came to light that Russia had used platforms including Facebook and Twitter in its attempt to interfere with the 2016 presidential election race. The efforts gained greater urgency in March after Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

These new proposals are among the first to be made by lawmakers since Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, testified before Congress in April about misinformation and data privacy issues on his company’s platform.

For their part, big technology companies are well aware that they must act to solve their problems or risk regulation. Facebook and Twitter spent heavily in the second quarter to shore up their networks against abuse.

Neither document pushed for a breakup of big technology companies. Mr. Warner’s office focused on increasing competition in the technology sector. The report proposes making it easier for users to move their data between digital platforms and limiting what companies can do with products, such as Google Maps, that are deemed to be so dominant that they have become “essential facilities” for users. The House of Commons report said the portrayal of tech companies as monopolies “does not appreciate the benefits of a shared service, where people can communicate freely.”

Still, the initiatives outlined in these documents are a long way from becoming law. Some of them — such as thorough audits of data and algorithms — may be technically difficult to achieve. Many will require legislation that, at best, will be slow to enact, and, more likely, may never achieve the momentum and support among lawmakers to pass.

Mr. Warner’s office acknowledged as much. “In many cases, there may be flaws in each proposal that may undercut the goal the proposal is trying achieve,” its paper reads, “or pose a political problem that simply can’t be overcome at this time.”

The point of the proposal, though, the paper claims, was merely to prompt conversations: “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.”


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