-- Washington officials once dazzled by the swashbuckling
entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley are now openly questioning the
freedom they’ve bestowed on Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Google.
by a president who’s openly contemptuous of the companies -- despite
his own reliance on Twitter -- and intelligence reports linking
popular online sites to election interference, lawmakers from both
parties grilled top tech executives this week about whether, and
how, Washington should rein them in.
comes on top of President Donald Trump accusing tech companies of
rigging their news feeds to favor liberal points of view and, in an
interview with Bloomberg News, of being in a “very antitrust
situation.” The Justice Department this week announced plans to meet
with state attorneys general to discuss whether tech companies are
stifling ideas. And the Federal Trade Commission scheduled hearings
on consumer protections for users of digital services as its new
chief has vowed to scrutinize tech companies.
good old days of the public and policy makers standing in awe of
what they built is over,” former Federal Communications Commission
Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a blog post. “The public is looking
for answers, and thus the Congress is looking for answers.”
among them Republican Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate
Intelligence Committee that’s been looking into Russian exploitation
of social media in U.S. elections that intelligence officials say
was aimed at helping Trump win the presidency.
is under attack is the idea that business as usual is good enough,”
Burr of North Carolina told Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl
Sandberg and Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey at the
hearing on Wednesday. The answer might be sharing more information
about malign practices, or greater cooperation from national
security officials, Burr said. “If the answer is regulation, let’s
have an honest dialogue about what that looks like,” he said.
the House, Representative Joe Barton, a senior Republican from
Texas, told Dorsey “We would not be having this discussion if there
was not a general agreement that your company has discriminated
against conservatives, most of whom happen to be Republican.”
stocks suffered, with an index of highly traded growth stocks
including Facebook, Google parent Alphabet Inc., Apple Inc. and
Amazon.com Inc. dropping 4.9 percent over three days.
the demand for action is the approach of congressional elections in
November, said Bruce Mehlman, a Republican lobbyist and co-chairman
of the Internet Innovation Alliance, a non-profit group that
promotes broadband. “The velocity and intensity of these concerns
have accelerated,” Mehlman said in an email.
odds are still long for substantive change, says Paul Gallant, a
Washington-based analyst with Cowen & Co., but they’re rising.
see regulation coming but suspect it won’t be game-changing,”
Gallant said in a Sept. 5 note. “Republicans’ concerns over ‘liberal
bias’ could lead to a new paradigm that gives greater public
visibility into the internet companies’ content decisions.”
put the chances of Congress passing legislation to protect online
privacy at 35 percent in the coming months, rising to 75 percent by
to get ahead of that debate, the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce
on Thursday outlined a series of proposals for privacy regulation,
reflecting a pervasive industry fear that laws governing the
collection and use of consumer data are spreading. The business
lobby prefers federal standards to a patchwork of state-by-state
efforts, such as one enacted this year by California.
Democrats, a traditional source of support for the tech industry,
are warming to the idea of new controls.
believe Congress is going to have to act,” said Senator Mark Warner
of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. For
example, he said social media sites should tell users how they’re
profiting from the data they collect. And he asked whether users
“have a right to know when they’re interacting with bots,” or
accounts that automatically generate messages.
ought to have both a moral and legal obligation if there are sites
that are incenting violence and take those down,” Warner said.
Dorsey said the company can’t always identify bots, which can be
programmed to act like humans.
sites have also rejected accusations growing more common among
conservatives that their points of view are being ignored.
their prerogative if they want to look into it. I think they’ll
find, there is no censorship of political speech,” said Michael
Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, a trade group.
the conservative point of view in particular, these platforms are
open and transparent and people are getting their voices heard,”
Beckerman said in an interview on Bloomberg TV on Wednesday.
“They’re open for all political parties and all viewpoints.”
Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said he’s “spending a lot of
time” on issues such as preventing election interference and
protecting users from abuse and harm.
are all efforts that will take years,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook
post. “The most important effort -- rebuilding all of our content
enforcement systems to proactively find harmful content rather than
wait for people to flag issues -- is at least a three-year project.”
companies have rejected the suggestion they restrain competition,
which a top Justice Department official on Thursday implied might be
difficult to establish.
Black, the president of trade group Computer & Communications
Industry Association, said his organization, whose members include
Amazon, Google and Facebook, is concerned about the Justice
Department’s plan to meet with states attorneys general. While there
are legitimate concerns about technology companies today, antitrust
enforcement shouldn’t be driven by partisan politics, he said.
would be inappropriate would be if legal action were to be
undertaken, not based on a solid evidentiary basis, in an effort to
pressure and bring leverage against companies where really the
grounds of concern are in other areas,” he said.
Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for
Technology Law & Policy in Washington, said there’s a partisan
divide on what changes are needed.
want protection from foreign actors, privacy protections and
increased competition, while Republicans are focused on “so-called
bias against conservative voices,” she said.
mood has definitely shifted -- both parties have made it clear that
they are going to be watching tech closely on a variety of issues,
and the threat of regulation is more real than ever,” Sohn said.