How do Facebook or Twitter know when a bot is signing up for an account instead of a real person?
Why do victims of online harassment need to flag the problem instead of trusting the world’s most-used social networks to weed out bad actors?
Are conservative voices targeted more by censors on Facebook and Twitter?
Those are some of the questions Congress asked Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Wednesday. During two hearings, over nearly eight hours, lawmakers expressed concern and frustration with how tech companies act when it comes to stopping their platforms from being co-opted — by foreign agencies looking to undermine our democracy, and by bad actors spreading hate, exploiting fears, feeding misinformation and engaging in personal attacks against opponents.
“The key questions are, what do the administration, Congress, the tech industry and the American people need to know and understand about ongoing attacks by foreign governments?” said April Doss, chair of the cybersecurity and privacy practice at law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr.
Sandberg and Dorsey acknowledged they were slow to recognize how their platforms could be manipulated and said they’re working to figure out solutions. But they also said there are no easy fixes and they’re still finding their way. Congress’ response to that was pretty clear.
“The era of the wild west in social media is coming to an end,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the Senate intelligence committee’s vice chairman. Congress, he said, will have to take action. “Where we go from here is an open question.”
The tech industry finds itself under the microscope again, but this time it’s up against lawmakers who aren’t just scrutinizing its missteps but asking fundamental questions about how tech works. Legislators are challenging tech companies for not being transparent about their internal processes and about their decision-making around election tampering, fake news and the banning of account holders. Those issues are tough for tech CEOs to dismiss with a talking point.
“We’re getting to the next layer down,” said James Norton, a former deputy assistant undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.
Unlike hearings over the past year in which lawmakers seemed clueless about social media and how Americans today use tech, Congress avoided cringe-worthy moments of gray-haired senators asking seemingly basic questions. (In April, Zuckerberg explained how he kept Facebook free: “Senator, we run ads.”) Instead, lawmakers on Wednesday focused on issues like data privacy and election interference.
Part of the reason for the change is that Congress doesn’t see tech as a wholly positive force in society, said Jeffrey Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy.
Congress isn’t going to let up. Chester, Doss and Norton all said there’s more to come. Lawmakers have already said they plan to schedule more hearings. And they may even subpoena Google after it decided not to send Alphabet CEO Larry Page or Google CEO Sundar Pichai to Washington to answer questions.
The era of the wild west in social media is coming to an end.”
But that doesn’t mean we’ll see new laws or regulations affecting the tech industry coming anytime soon, said Larry Downes, project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy. “I don’t expect much in the way of legislative action,” he said. “There’s no markup; there are no bills; there’s nothing circulating.”
What can we expect? Lawmakers asked executives to commit to vague ideas, like an “audit by Amnesty International,” which Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette asked Dorsey to do (he agreed to it). New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone asked if Dorsey would commit to an independent third-party civil rights audit (he agreed to that too)….Read More>>>