WASHINGTON – “Facebook and Big Tech are having a big tobacco moment,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said this week when witness testified how the company’s products on social media harm teens.
“I think that’s a fitting analogy,” added Senator Cynthia Lummis, a Republican from Wyoming, later.
The whistleblower testimony and the thousands of internal documents she shared with lawmakers have spawned an unusual bipartisan friendliness in divided Washington. Senators said it was time for Congress to rally around new rules to rein in the company and possibly the tech industry as a whole.
But if what kind of person Big Tech This is something like what happened to Big Tobacco – paying for the harm the industry is doing to society and children in particular – there is likely to be a long and difficult road ahead to new rules and regulations with no guaranteed result.
Washington is weighing numerous proposals to shrink the industry and make it more accountable. Some lawmakers have called for a redesign of the law protecting technology companies from lawsuits, changing it so that companies can be held liable if their software amplifies malicious speech. Another idea would force social media companies to share much more information about their often black box software and data on how people interact with their services.
Legislators have proposed creating a new federal agency to oversee technology companies or expanding the powers of the Federal Trade Commission. They promoted stricter privacy and child safety laws and regulated Facebook and Google’s behavioral advertising business models. And several bills to revise antitrust laws to make the public less dependent on a small number of tech companies have pulled out of a House committee.
But going through any of these options is a steep climb. Tech companies are basking in wealth and using it to influence legislators by creating the largest army of lobbyists any industry in Washington DC. Dozens of privacy and speech bills have stalled in Congress in recent years.
The questions are complicated too. Some say that transferring much more data to researchers could undermine people’s privacy. Attempts to even narrowly regulate content on platforms like Facebook run into problems with free speech.
Perhaps the best chance of crushing the industry is with decisive action by President Biden and his administration. He has yet to endorse any bills, but has appointed some of the industry’s leading critics to regulatory leadership positions. Lina Khan, chairman of the FTC, and Jonathan KanterA candidate for the post of head of the antimonopoly department of the Ministry of Justice has promised to limit the opportunities for companies.
“Facebook was hit hard this week, but it can take a lot of blows, just like the tobacco industry,” said Allan Brandt, a Harvard professor and expert on the booms and bust of the tobacco industry.
More than 50 years have passed since the first published study on the dangers of cigarettes and more than a decade after a whistleblower shared internal documents proving that tobacco companies hid their knowledge of the flaws in their products before meaningful government emerged. – he said.
“There will be regulation of Facebook and other tech companies,” Mr. Brandt said, “but I’m skeptical about the path to successful regulation anytime soon.”
The European Union has for many years been more aggressive towards tech companies than the United States on issues such as antitrust and data privacy. Testimony from a Facebook whistleblower last week: Francis Haugen, amplified calls adopt proposals that would set tighter rules for how Facebook and other internet companies control their platforms, and add tighter competition rules to reduce their dominance over the digital economy. The laws may be passed as early as next year.
But in Washington, a key obstacle to legislation being passed is that Democrats and Republicans view tech power issues and social media appearances differently. Democrats want to tackle the spread of misinformation and the rise of harmful political rhetoric, while Republicans argue that Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social media platforms are censoring conservative views.
And when it comes to questions about whether to split companies, many Democrats see antitrust measures as a way to slow down the most powerful technology platforms and address privacy, security and data disinformation concerns. Some Republicans say there is a lot of competition in the industry and that splitting up companies would be an example of an abuse of power.
“Just because we have the hammer of antitrust law in our hands does not mean that we have to treat every issue like a nail so as not to risk hammering our entire economy,” Christine Wilson, a Republican FTC member, told Congress recently.
Facebook, Google and Twitter said they welcomed another government oversight, signaling support for stricter data privacy regulations and the creation of an agency to regulate the tech industry. But they also warn that many of the state and federal government proposals to strengthen antitrust laws, limit data collection and hold companies accountable for harmful speech could backfire.
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, said the whistleblower’s claims that the company is prioritizing profit over safety are “profoundly illogical.” The company also rejected comparisons to the tobacco industry.
“This is an absurd comparison,” said Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman. “Social media helps people connect and small businesses thrive. Instead of making false equivalents, the focus should be on updated rules regarding privacy, data portability, content standards and elections. ”
But many legislators said the industry comparison was not an exaggeration and was indeed instructive.
Government investigators have uncovered secret marketing plans for tobacco company RJ Reynolds to use Joe Camel’s cartoon mascot to turn children into smokers, which has helped support lawsuits against the company and spur lawmakers into action.
Some of the internal documents Ms Haugen shared with lawmakers showed that many teens felt worse about their bodies after spending time on Instagram, Facebook’s photo-sharing app, sometimes to the point of expressing plans to inflict self harm. Other documents showed that the company is exploring marketing opportunities even for young children.
Mr Blumenthal, who led a successful lawsuit against Big Tobacco in the 1990s when he was Connecticut’s attorney general, said the importance of the documents immediately struck him.
“It was a light bulb, and all the memories came back from strategic documents prepared by the tobacco companies to reach high school children,” he said. “It was like you could just rearrange the words and replace them with ‘tobacco’.”
He also noted that the technology is not exactly like the tobacco industry. Tech has broad legal protections that prevent state attorneys general from suing companies like him.
Section 230 of the Decency ActA law passed in 1996 protects companies from most lawsuits for comments, photos, and other content that users post on their sites. As a result, if someone is harmed by what a user posts, the public – and the government – have little opportunity to reach out to firms.
Mr Blumenthal supports the revision of this law to reduce these protections. He pushed through legislation to remove the shield if services allow the distribution of images of child abuse. Other lawmakers have proposed removing legal protections when companies’ algorithms leverage – automatically promoting, recommending, and praising content that violates certain anti-terrorism and civil rights laws.
Ms Haugen said such changes, with the potential for legal action, would force Facebook and other social media companies to stop using software that prioritizes engaging and promoting the most harmful content.
But Mr. Blumenthal seemed to be aware that any change would not come quickly.
“This fight will not be fought in the courtroom,” he said.
“Congress must act,” said Ms. Lummis. “I leave all options on the table, but even in this polarizing environment, it is encouraging that we have a bipartisan concern here.”