Senator Michael F. Bennett (Democrat of Colo) today the Digital Platform Commission Act, a bill to create a new five-person commission responsible for protecting consumers in the age of big technology. According to the proposed text presented exclusively to The Washington Post, the agency would have the ability to interrogate the algorithms that power major tech platforms, and set new rules to ensure the largest companies are transparent about how they handle thorny decisions about modifying content on their platforms. .
“We need an experienced agency to have a thoughtful approach here,” he said.
Regulators’ current focus on tech competition problems does not address many of the industry’s most pressing problems, according to Bennett, such as foreign disinformation, child safety, and the potentially radical impact of platform and product designs.
The bill represents a growing awareness that the federal government is constantly outperforming in technical resources and skills when examining huge Silicon Valley companies. The Federal Trade Commission, which currently does a lot of oversight of the tech industry, and the Department of Justice, which has brought a major antitrust case against Google, have taken a more reactive approach to abuses in the tech industry — sometimes at a slower pace than the industry moves. The agency’s staff and resources are under pressure due to the crushing of merger filings, FTC chairwoman Lena Khan said, and she has asked Congress for more funding.
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Consumer advocates have called for such a body for years, after tech companies were embroiled in scandals over data privacy, election interference and child safety. Recently, industry heavyweights, including Microsoft President Brad Smith, have joined in support of this idea.
US lawmakers previously proposed creating a new privacy regulator within the Federal Trade Commission, and other countries boast data protection and competition agencies with many technicians on staff. But Bennett’s proposed commission would have a broader scope, addressing issues from the impact of social media platforms on local news to the impact of technology platforms on mental health.
The commission will be tasked with creating rules to ensure big tech companies are transparent about their content moderation rules, as well as requirements for regular public risk assessments about violent or hateful content circulating on their services. He will establish a “Code Council” made up of technologists and experts in the public interest to set technical standards and policies for the committee to consider, as well as a research office that conducts internal research and coordinates with external academics to study companies.
Bennett said he was motivated by his personal experience with the harms caused by technology: disinformation he witnessed in his work on the Senate Intelligence Committee and the effects that social media had on his children.
The proposal is a long shot in the Senate where Democrats have a shaky 50-50 majority — and Republicans have historically been wary of bills that would create new regulators. Although the legislation aims to address a wide range of harms, any government effort to impose more transparency on companies’ content modification practices and algorithms It could raise concerns about freedom of expression under the First Amendment.
More recently, the Department of Homeland Security’s release of the “Disinformation Board” sparked a wave of criticism, largely from conservatives, arguing that it was a potential vehicle for government oversight. The Department of Homeland Security said the entity would focus on foreign objectives, including countering disinformation from Russia ahead of the midterm elections and people smugglers targeting immigrants. A group representing tech companies challenged President Donald Trump’s 2020 social media executive order, arguing that it could “limit and mitigate constitutionally protected rhetoric”.
Harold Field, Senior Vice President of Consumer Advocacy Public Knowledge Group, proposed a new panel focused on technology in his 2019 book “The Case for the Digital Platform Act.” He told The Post that such an agency could bring more independence to oversight of tech companies, because it would include commissioners from both parties, such as the Federal Trade Commission or the Federal Communications Commission.
Field’s proposal has gained increasing traction in technical policy circles. Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler (D) told The Post last month that Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter emphasized the need for such an agency, to ensure “a code of acceptable behavior” across the tech industry. Field said there are safeguards in the bill about administrative processes that would provide for additional checks, in addition to the judicial appeals that could be filed under the First Amendment.
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The new agency will have limited resources compared to the companies, some of which are estimated at more than $1 trillion. Its initial budget will be $100 million in its first year, then increase to $500 million over five years.
Some critics have warned that such a body could be more vulnerable to influence than powerful tech giants, who are among the biggest lobbyists in Washington. Microsoft’s Smith said at a privacy conference in April that such a commission would represent a “better future than requiring Congress, the legislature or Parliament to act on a partial basis and change each law individually.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Representative Peter Welch (D-Vt.) at a congressional hearing in March 2021 that such a new agency “could be very effective and positive to help.”
Welch was also working on a similar proposal, circulating a memo to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in March 2021 proposing the creation of a separate agency to oversee technology.
“I am in the process of drafting legislation that would eventually create an agency to provide fair and comprehensive regulatory oversight for social media companies, so we can create safer and better online communities for our community,” he said in a statement.