Lawmakers See a Way to Regulate Technology, but It Isn’t Easy.

After an anonymous Facebook user testified about the dangers of the social media giant’s products for teenagers, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) compared Facebook and Big Tech to the tobacco industry.

Later, Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said, “I think that’s an appropriate analogy.”

In a bitterly divided city like Washington, D.C., the whistleblower’s testimony and the tens of thousands of internal documents she provided to lawmakers sparked unprecedented bipartisanship. Senators believe that Congress must unite behind new regulations aimed at containing the company and, potentially, the entire technology industry.

To be sure, if what’s happening now with Big Tech is anything like what happened with Big Tobacco, the road to new rules and regulations will be long and difficult, with no guarantee of success.

Many proposals in Washington are being considered to limit the industry’s power and make it more accountable. Some lawmakers have proposed replacing a law that shields tech companies from liability with one that holds them accountable when their software amplifies harmful speech. Another proposal, on the other hand, would compel social media companies to share a lot more information about their software, which is frequently a black box, as well as data on how their users interact with their solutions.

Legislators have proposed establishing a new federal agency to monitor technology firms, or expanding the authority of the Federal Trade Commission. They’ve advocated for stricter laws to protect children’s privacy and safety, as well as reining in the business models of social media behemoths like Facebook and Google, which rely on behavioural advertising. Several bills to overhaul antitrust laws have advanced through the House of Representatives in order to reduce the public’s reliance on a small number of high-tech behemoths.

Getting through any of those hoops is difficult. Because of an avalanche of cash used to sway lawmakers, the tech industry has amassed the largest lobbying force in Washington, D.C. In recent years, Congress has put a stop to a number of bills concerning personal privacy and free speech.

The issues at hand are also complex. For some, sharing more data with researchers may jeopardise people’s privacy. Attempts to restrict content on social media platforms such as Facebook, even in the smallest way, raise concerns about the freedom of speech provided by those platforms.

President Joe Biden and his administration may have the best chance of putting an end to the industry if they act decisively. Despite not having endorsed any legislation, he has appointed some of the industry’s most outspoken critics to key regulatory positions. Lina Khan, Chair of the FTC, and Jonathan Kanter, Nominee for the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, have both pledged to limit corporate power.

Blumenthal supports revising the law to reduce the number of protections currently in place. According to his legislation, the shield would be removed if the services allowed images of child abuse to circulate. Other lawmakers have proposed stripping companies of legal protection if their algorithms automatically promote, recommend, and rank highly content that violates anti-terrorism and civil rights laws.

According to Haugen, changes like these, which could result in lawsuits, would force Facebook and other social media companies to abandon software that prioritises engagement and promotion of harmful content.


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