Is More Tech Regulation Coming?

New congressional hearings this past week on a variety of technology issues may mean more regulation is coming soon. From data privacy to social media influence in elections to biased search results, where is this discussion heading? Let’s explore.

by / September 9, 2018

Most of the national media attention this past week centered on the protests and the questions asked during Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who was nominated by President Trump to become a new Supreme Court Justice.

Meanwhile, however, other congressional hearings occurred with big technology companies on the hot seat for a variety of reasons —including social media actions and plans.

Why Hearings? What’s at Stake?

In this Washington Journal interview, Ashley Gold, a technology reporter for Politico, previews why social media companies are testifying and what is at stake. Gold discusses the challenges posed by ads being purchased by foreigners to influence U.S. elections. She also describes how Twitter and Facebook will testify, but Google would not participate.

Back in April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg offered testimony to a mostly hostile Congress

I wrote this blog on the Facebook situation and related issues back in April of this year, with this conclusion:

“The current Facebook story is perhaps the tipping point for more global privacy protections at a time when the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) are also coming into effect in Europe. …

The tech industry is about to see an overhaul in expectations regarding what it means to “trust but verify” security and privacy protections of data collected.”

Big Tech Testimony Outcomes?

So what actually happened this past week? One result, as reported by C|Net, were these quotes coming from Sen. Mark Warner from Virginia.

“The era of the wild west in social media is coming to an end,” he said during testimony Wednesday. “Where we go from here is an open question” […]

"It wasn't stupid questions, it wasn't 'Internet 101,' so I think at least from the committee standpoint, I think we feel like we're moving the ball," he said.

He was also disappointed with Google, which didn't attend the hearing, despite an invitation being sent to its cofounder and parent company's CEO Larry Page

"Google made a huge mistake by not attending our hearing," he said. "And all that will do is simply raise questions about certain areas beyond even Russian interference that people want to ask questions on.”

Twitter and Facebook offered a laundry list of actions they are taking to address concerns. You can see the full testimony here.

The Washington Post focused more on the content and style of those who did testify. It’s tech vs. lawmakers on Capitol Hill today. It’s also Sandberg vs. Dorsey.

“Their differing approaches were on display as the pair entered the Senate Intelligence Committee's hearing room on Wednesday morning, both wearing simple black suits (Dorsey didn't wear a tie). An experienced political operator, Sandberg dove into her talking points as she readily answered questions and barely looked at her notes. Dorsey gave more direct responses, went off script and looked at his phone several times. His Twitter account sent tweets during his opening remarks.

Their approaches were tested by lawmakers, who grilled the executives with questions about their business models, privacy, disinformation, abuse of their services by governments and foreign actors, and their readiness to prevent that abuse in the run-up to the U.S. midterms. Sandberg and Dorsey’s responses could impact regulation of the tech industry, a prospect both acknowledged during the hearings. …”

You can also watch the Twitter executive's testimony and questioning for the House Energy and Commerce Committee here:

What Regulation Is Possible? Could We See an ‘Honest Ads Act?’

To understand the complexities involved with tech legislation, it is helpful to go back to this March 5, 2018 article by Marketwatch.com which covers the “5 thorniest questions about regulating big tech.”

Those 5 questions/areas include:

  • The first is privacy.
  • The second issue is market power.
  • A third issue concerns the control of information.
  • The fourth issue is the concentration of wealth.
  • The last issue concerns national security and national economic interests.

On the last point, the article describes the national security challenges this way: “A number of tech firms, including Microsoft and Facebook, declared that they will not assist any government in conducting offensive cyberwarfare operations, and that they will defend unconditionally any countries or individuals targeted by a cyber attack. Does that really include a cyber attack against North Korea or Iran to preempt a nuclear event?”

In another interview with eWeek, Sen. Warner described 20 proposals that could find their way into new legislation. Here is an excerpt:

“The impact of social media and large technology companies on society has grown to the point that many in Congress feel that it is time to consider regulations to protect consumer privacy and defend against foreign disinformation.

To that end, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), co-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, put together a white paper that contains a list of 20 proposals for regulating social media companies and those big technology companies. Senator Warner discussed those proposals in a wide-ranging interview with eWEEK. 

Warner puts the issue of disinformation and misinformation at the top of his list. He’s suggesting that online services have a duty to clearly and conspicuously label bots. In his interview, Warner discussed California legislation that requires letting people know when they’re being contacted by a bot versus a real person. …”

Final Thoughts

There is an ongoing debate about what Congress and the president might do to regulate big technology companies that control the largest social media channels around the world. Just as in cybersecurity, there is pressure to “do something,” but different approaches are offered and different priorities exist between political parties.

Nevertheless, there is bipartisan agreement that more regulation is needed. However, it is hard to see how anything will pass before the November 2018 elections. When specific actions do occur, the “Honest Ads Act” seems like the most plausible place to start.

No matter who wins control of Congress in November, expect these big tech issues (as listed above in MarketWatch article) to stay near the top of the political agenda for both political parties for years, due to the social media influence in the 2018 election as well as the 2020 presidential election after that. Also, the ongoing perception (or reality) of media bias is not going away. 

One thing is clear, both parties don’t trust big tech to automatically “do the right things.” The more difficult questions, as is most often the case in Washington, D.C., are: What are the right things for these global companies to do? Will tech companies take enough steps voluntarily to satisfy Congress?

And, will these proposals become law in our partisan environment?