This week lawmakers from the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Communications and Technology (of the Committee on Energy and Commerce) continued to hear testimony from witnesses on the state of “Big Tech,” notably the social media platforms.
During the hearings, “Holding Big Tech Accountable: Targeted Reforms to Tech’s Legal Immunity,” Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and other witnesses including Kara Frederick, research fellow in technology policy The Heritage Foundation, offered testimony explaining the problems that still need to be addressed. Haugen warned of the social network’s use of divisive algorithms, while Frederick echoed the criticism of Republican lawmakers that right-leaning political views were being silenced.
At the center of the debate is how much legal liability social media services should face for what is posted on their respective platforms.
“These platforms don’t want to be held accountable and the users suffering harm deserve better from us and we will act,” said Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn), chair of the subcommittee.
Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, online platforms such Facebook and Twitter aren’t treated as a publisher, and thus not responsible for the content of their respective user’s posts. Critics warn that allows them to have it both ways – they claim not to be responsible for what is said, yet still, delete posts that they argue violate their own community standards.
“Somehow they exist on a completely different plane and are allowed to have a completely different set of rules than everyone else,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, one of the witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing. “The fact of the matter is freedom of speech is not freedom from the consequences of speech.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree there is a problem – yet they can’t agree on what the problem actually is!
“Frances Haugen’s whistleblowing is getting drowned out by Congress returning to its old dog whistles, where the Republicans see the platforms muzzling conservative voices and Democrats see them as exercising monopoly power and not doing enough to stop the misinformation epidemic,” Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, explained via an email.
“In parallel, the Biden administration has lined up a who’s who of get-tough-on-tech stars – Messrs Wu, Khan, Kanter and Chopra. All this is adding up to rhetoric trumping rational strategy,” added Chakravorti. “In the meantime, despite all the legitimate reasons to develop a holistic framework and visionary policies to regulate these platforms, we have no path forward with clear-headed bipartisan leadership. It seems that between the whistleblowers and the dog-whistlers, we are all left whistling in the dark.”
Is Anyone Being Held Accountable?
Many in the tech world see the problem and say not enough is being done to resolve it.
“Whether enough is being done – the answer is no. Big tech – ranging from search engines to social platforms – has, for many people, a major trust issue. Many are concerned about having their data sold, and also about the potential for shadow banning, skewing of public opinion, and other issues,” explained Tom Garrubba, vice president of Shared Assessments, the global membership organization dedicated to developing the best practices, education and tools to drive third party risk assurance.
“As a government and a society, we are doing nothing to hold ‘Big Tech’ accountable,” warned Jane Grafton, vice president at cybersecurity research firm Gurucul. “And it’s not just social media. We’re seeing facial recognition software and other machine learning technologies highly biased against certain demographics and situations, and being abused in practice. Deepfakes will continue to influence national opinion. It’s clear that the profit motive is driving many strategic decisions at Big Tech companies.”
In the case of social media, the problem has grown because the platforms are so widely used – yet remain completely unregulated.
“Social media platforms started benignly enough, but have devolved to the point where they give extreme views and even lies to its outsized audience,” Grafton said via an email. “Perhaps the best thing is to drive social media out of the political realm, but that’s almost certainly not going to happen. What does have to happen is that everyday users of these platforms have to become more cyber-aware of the potential for unsupported assertions to supplant truth in daily discourse. If we can assist casual consumers of social media and other technologies of the seemingly vast potential for harm, perhaps we can get back to something approaching a shared national discourse.”
Are They Publishers?
The conservative view remains that the social platforms want to maintain their Section 230 protection, yet still have the option to silence or ban those views they don’t like. To Republican lawmakers, the social media platforms should be treated as publishers and lose those protections.
“Many big tech companies have emerged as today’s town criers – roles that have evolved organically and that have also been self-architected. One problem that concerns so many is the sale of user PII (Personally Identifiable Information) to high bidders such as marketing companies,” said Garrubba.
“Another area of concern is what many perceive to be a revolving door between Federal government roles and Big Tech roles,” he added. “If a day of reckoning is coming in terms of legislating big tech, then having friends and former colleagues in positions to help liaise between big tech entities and those honing public policy may have the impact of softening legislation. This is also why some of the biggest tech players are diversifying – to ward of potential antitrust legislation.”
Then there is the question as to whether free and open debate is being stifled?
“Some claim that even an apolitical comment on an election or public health issue can get people banned by and from big tech platforms, with a potential chilling effect on public discourse,” noted Garrubba. “China is said to have worked on social scoring which determines what privileges, travel abilities and even the employment people can hold. Some are concerned that this can also happen in the U.S. and elsewhere, and they view this as particularly troubling if big tech are the ultimate arbiters.”