Congress Is Likely to Support New Regulations on Social Media, Senator Says

(Bloomberg) -- Mark Warner, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, said Thursday a broad bipartisan majority in Congress likely will back new regulation of social media, though such legislation might take time to come together.

"Depending on how we framed it, I think we’d have an overwhelming majority," Warner of Virginia said at a conference on digital privacy in Washington sponsored by the Atlantic magazine. "I think there is a high chance that people realize that the days of the wild, wild west are over, that there needs to be some guardrails."

Lawmakers of both parties have been highly critical of social media companies’ voluntary efforts to rein in fake information and other problems. Democrats want to avoid a repeat of Russian use of social media accounts to meddle in the 2016 election, while Republicans accuse the platforms of discriminating against conservative points of view.

Twitter Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey and Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg appeared at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Sept. 5, where Dorsey said there will be “massive shifts” in how Twitter and other social media companies operate. Sandberg acknowledged that 3 percent to 4 percent of Facebook accounts are fake at any time. Google Inc. didn’t send a top executive.

Warner said his message to the tech companies is to stay engaged with Congress to avoid the risk of heavier-handed regulation later.

"Twitter and Facebook at this point are fully engaged," he said. "We’ve already had serious followup meetings since our hearing on what substantive policy might look like."

Protection or Innovation?

Warner is pushing various ideas, including mandatory labeling of automated social media accounts known as bots, portability of personal data from one company to another, and a legal requirement that companies take down sites that promote violence.

The senator said he isn’t yet sold on Europe’s sweeping new privacy rules. "Whether the European approach grants us that real protection or simply impedes innovation, I think the jury is out," he said.

After his speech, Warner said in an interview that it’s likely any major legislation would come next year, though he said some ideas could move forward sooner.

Warner told the conference that the public has become much more concerned about the impact of social media than five years ago, and that tech companies’ own employees want changes too. He said the companies, particularly Facebook, have made "great strides" in the past year, and again criticized Google for failing to send a top executive to last week’s hearing.

Warner added he doesn’t want U.S. tech companies to lose out to Chinese tech companies that he said in many ways are "total pawns" of the Chinese government.

Technical Challenges

During last week’s hearing, Dorsey said he was open to labeling bots but said there were technical challenges because the automated accounts could be programmed to behave like humans.

At the hearing, Sandberg endorsed the idea that her company had moral and legal obligations to take down violent content. Many tech companies have pushed back on possible European rules that would require quick removal.

On Wednesday, the Internet Association lobbying group, which counts Google and Facebook as members, released proposals for a federal privacy law that endorsed data portability. Warner and others have suggested that would foster competition that could rein in the companies.

Warner said the Intelligence Committee is working on writing a social media report that may include a "menu" of options for Congress to consider.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune of South Dakota on Wednesday announced a Sept. 26 hearing on digital privacy with representatives from Amazon.com Inc, Google, AT&T Inc., Twitter, Apple Inc. and Charter Communications Inc.

The hearing will look at "what Congress can do to promote clear privacy expectations without hurting innovation," Thune said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.