More Talk Than Action on Regulating Big Tech in U.S.
(Bloomberg) -- When Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the U.S. Congress in April, lawmakers warned that the era of self-regulation for social media was likely over. When the CEO of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Sundar Pichai, testified on Dec. 11, he was bombarded with complaints. There appears to be a growing consensus that the U.S. needs stronger rules guiding how big-tech companies operate. Yet for the most part, American politicians don’t agree on what the most pressing issues are, much less what to do about them.
1. What bothers conservatives?
U.S. President Donald Trump, members of his Republican Party and other conservative groups say Facebook, Google and Twitter Inc. are biased against them. They say the companies suppress or reduce the visibility of their opinions while favoring liberals, though no evidence has emerged of systematic anti-conservative bias on the social-media platforms. (“Our algorithms have no notion of political sentiment,” Pichai said at the Dec. 11 hearing.) Conservatives have seized on examples of leftist political expression by Google employees, including a leaked meeting in which executives expressed dismay about Trump’s 2016 election. Both Google and Facebook have acknowledged the liberal leanings of their workforces but say that doesn’t impact the way they filter content. Twitter said that an adjustment to stop the spread of forbidden content was responsible for some accounts dropping from automated search results in July and that it affected accounts across the political spectrum.
2. What bothers liberals?
Democrats have called the allegations of political bias a diversion from the exploitation of social-media platforms by Russia to influence the 2016 election. Facebook has disclosed that posts by the Internet Research Agency, the Russian “troll farm” known for pushing Kremlin propaganda, reached the news feeds of 150 million users, who had no way of knowing that Russia was behind them. Many aimed to stir controversy and divisiveness around issues such as race relations, immigration and gun rights. An additional 11 million users saw ads that cost the Russian group $100,000. The same group operated dozens of Twitter accounts masquerading as local American news sources that collectively garnered more than half-a-million followers. Google said Russia-linked organizations bought as much as $57,700 in ads on its YouTube video platform, AdWords and other services, and some Google engineers coined the term “evil unicorns” to describe unverified, lie-filled posts on obscure topics.
3. What bothers both sides?
Privacy concerns have always dogged the big-tech platforms. They reached a fever pitch in March when it was revealed that the personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users, mostly in the U.S., was obtained by Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm that worked with the Trump campaign. The outrage over policies that enabled such data-sharing was bipartisan. “Your user agreement sucks,” Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, told Zuckerberg during the April hearing. In the months since then, new reports have revealed more of Facebook’s aggressive collection of personal data, and Google drew fire for not disclosing a “software glitch” that gave outside developers potential access to user data for years.
4. Will anything get done?
User-data protection is the area ripest for new rules. Already, the state of California has passed the country’s toughest privacy regulations. Though there will be efforts to change the law before it takes effect in 2020, it’s designed to give Californians rights to opt out of the sale of their personal information, the ability to have their data deleted and a right to know what has been collected on them. Other states could use the law as a model for their own statutes, which Silicon Valley would almost surely oppose. Tech companies have begun laying the groundwork for a national privacy bill, in part to avoid being governed by different state laws. When asked about the principles behind Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, a privacy law that took effect in May, Pichai called it “well-thought-out" legislation.
5. What about holding websites liable for content?
Silicon Valley is particularly worried about possible new changes to the 1996 law that exempts technology platforms from liability for user-generated content. The tech industry says this provision, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is vital to their ability to operate as open platforms. Critics are increasingly eager to chip away at it. This year, Congress passed a law holding platforms responsible if they knowingly facilitate sex trafficking. There have been calls to re-examine section 230 from those who charge social media sites with being lax in their response to online harassment -- and from others arguing the sites claim to be combating harassment when in fact they’re discriminating against right-leaning voices. Any reform, however, would rely on bipartisan cooperation, and Democrats and Republicans agree neither on the nature of the problem nor on the road map to a solution.
6. What’s being done to prevent a repeat of 2016?
More than a dozen states have disclosure requirements for political ads that run online, like those that apply to such ads on TV and radio. The idea is to let voters know who’s trying to influence them. Bills in Congress would make the requirement nationwide, but they have stalled so far. Critics say such measures are insufficient, since groups can offer names that give little clue to who’s actually behind an ad. The Federal Election Commission is considering requiring online political ads to show details of sponsorship -- a proposal that even commission members characterize as a narrow reform. The big tech companies came up with their own policies requiring more transparency in political advertising in an attempt to convince lawmakers self-regulation was sufficient. Facebook’s policies were roundly criticized in the final days of the 2018 midterm elections, when reporters showed that they could easily purchase political advertisements using false credentials.
7. Anyone want to bust up the tech giants?
Lawmakers, economists and antitrust experts are increasingly debating whether to rein in the tech Goliaths. The 20-year dry spell in monopoly cases has led some economists and even some tech experts to conclude that enforcement has been too timid, with negative economic effects. Facebook and Google control more than half of U.S. internet mobile ad spending. Facebook’s share of mobile social-media traffic, including its WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram units, is about 75 percent, by one estimate. The power to break up companies lies with antitrust officials at the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department, which must find the companies are thwarting competition. Historically, Republican administrations have been less concerned about harm from dominant companies.
The Reference Shelf
- QuickTake explainers on Trump’s attacks on Google, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data breach, the European Union’s privacy-protection rules, and the dangers of social media for children.
- A Bloomberg Intelligence analyst writes that EU antitrust enforcement is a bigger threat to Facebook and Google than EU privacy rules.
- A Bloomberg Government transcript of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s April 10 Senate testimony.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.