Tech companies may have to cough up research data under this bill
The updated Platform Accountability and Transparency Act will require digital platforms to fork over data for research projects approved by federal agencies – or face the threat of liability. Sens. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) are the lead sponsors.
The bill, first unveiled as a discussion draft last December, is one of the most serious congressional efforts yet to shed light on the inner workings of social media platforms, whose sprawling but often opaque networks face increasing scrutiny. stare at their impact on society.
Under the plan, the National Science Foundation will review and greenlight “qualified” research proposals, provided they comply with privacy and security measures created by the Federal Trade Commission. Failure to comply could result in companies losing their liability protection under Section 230 or facing charges of unfair or deceptive trade practices.
The proposal would also create a path for platforms and researchers to receive immunity while sharing user data, which lawmakers hope will ease fears of potential legal backlash. And it would separately require tech companies to regularly disclose data about viral content, their moderation calls and digital advertising to the public.
In an exclusive interview ahead of its launch, Coons said the bill would “empower academics and independent researchers to look under the hood and see what is the machinery that drives these social media platforms and whether they are actually harmful in some way.”
While the thrust of the original concept remain unchanged, lawmakers tweaked the legislation to broaden the pool of eligible researchers, streamline the process to get them off the ground, and expand privacy protections.
Here are the key changes in the new version, first shared with The Technology 202:
- This makes it possible for researchers working with nonprofit organizations to apply to access company data, in addition to those affiliated with universities.
- It no longer requires the Federal Trade Commission to set up a new office to oversee the research program, giving the agency more leeway over implementation.
- This raises the threshold of monthly users a platform must cover from 25 million to 50 million, which will still catch most major social networks.
- It expands the scope of companies covered to expressly include “augmented or virtual reality,” which could help future-proof the proposition.
- It sets new privacy limits on what data researchers can request by excluding direct or private messages, biometric data or geolocation data.
Coons, a close ally of President Biden and chairman of the Senate Judiciary’s Privacy and Technology Subcommittee, said he plans to push to have the bill marked up and moved to the president’s desk next Congress.
Coons described it as a “centrist proposal” that could help policymakers turn “opinions about social media” and its impact on users into actionable “facts.” Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) are co-sponsors.
In recent years, lawmakers have expressed increasing concern that large platforms could exacerbate mental health issues and contribute to political polarization, leading some to push Congress to act quickly and enact new rules for the Internet.
“I respect my colleagues who say: ‘We don’t need to study this endlessly. We have to start acting.’ I still think we need more information,” Coons said. “For me, it’s not an either or neither.”
Coons said having more data could also help lawmakers “secure broad bipartisan support for legislative action,” including for technology bills that haven’t yet garnered “strong enough” support to pass.
Government efforts to regulate social media are increasingly facing legal hurdles, with courts embroiled in thorny disputes over how to interpret old legal standards in the internet age and apply fresh digital rules.
The Supreme Court is set to take up some high-profile cases on Section 230 and there are ongoing legal challenges to platform regulations in California, Texas and Florida.
“If our courts had more confidence that the legislation that we were doing … was well informed, I would think that we would have a better chance of withstanding court challenges,” Coons said.
Coons cited Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter — which was seen as an industry leader in sharing data with researchers — as a “cautionary tale” of how a company’s approach to transparency can change without more guardrails in place.
“Twitter has been the one platform that has been relatively transparent and has made some investments and efforts around derailments and accountability and some transparency around its metrics,” he said. “All of that was blown up by the change in ownership.”
Congress is pushing up restrictions on TikTok as the company tries to allay privacy fears
A provision in a must-pass omnibus spending bill would bar federal employees from downloading TikTok to state devices, Eugene Scott, Julian Mark and Drew Harwell report. Lawmakers’ inclusion of the ban in the bill – which Congress faces a Friday deadline to pass – comes as the US government and TikTok continue to work on a possible deal to assuage US concerns about the app .
TikTok has agreed to separate decision-making from Chinese parent ByteDance, and will also give US authorities the power to veto appointments to its proposed three-person board and its top executives. US officials would also set hiring standards for TikTok’s US staff. The details were detailed by four people with knowledge of the discussions between TikTok and the secretive Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).
TikTok presented the plan in August, and officials still haven’t approved it, the people said. TikTok has begun to outline the blueprint to Biden administration officials, and a CFIUS working group has expressed initial support for it, they said.
Biden administration officials say a deal is not imminent and that government agencies are still looking at what the best approach would be. TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter called the decision to include a TikTok ban on government devices in the bill a “political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests.” Oberwetter said the company was “disappointed” that Congress made such a move “rather than encouraging the administration to finish its national security review,” and that TikTok was continuing to brief lawmakers on its plan.
Zuckerberg testifies at antitrust hearing in California
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg told a federal court that fitness apps are not key to the company’s metaverse ambitions, Naomi Nix reports. Zuckerberg testified at a hearing in which the Federal Trade Commission is trying to block Meta’s acquisition of Within, which made the popular VR exercise game Supernatural. The FTC argues that Meta likely would have made its own VR fitness app had it not bought Within, and the acquisition deprived consumers of that competition and choice.
“Zuckerberg, called as a witness by the FTC, defended Meta’s reliance on acquisitions to build out virtual and augmented reality services,” writes Naomi. “He said that under current economic conditions, Meta would be unlikely to develop a fitness app of its own.” Lawyers for the FTC pointed to Meta employees debating how to get into the fitness app business.
FTC steps up Twitter probe
Two top ex-Twitter executives – former chief security officer Damien Kieran and former Chief Information Security Officer Leah Kissner – spoke with the Federal Trade Commission lawyers about whether Twitter – is under owner Elon Musk‘s leadership – will be able to comply with a 2011 consent order with the FTC, Bloomberg News’s Kurt Wagner and Leah Nylen report. The FTC has begun investigating Twitter after its former chief cybersecurity officer Peter “Mudge” Zatko filed a whistleblower complaint this year.
“The investigation is at least the third time the FTC has probed the social media platform over its privacy and data security practices,” Wagner and Nylen write. “The review could result in millions of dollars in fines and a new FTC order imposing obligations on Musk himself that would apply across his companies and remain in effect even if he steps down as CEO or leaves Twitter.”
An FTC spokesperson declined to comment to Bloomberg News, but FTC spokesman Douglas Farrar previously said that “no CEO or company is above the law, and companies must follow our consent decisions.”
Irish Twitter manager settles action against company (RTÉ)
Video gamers sue Microsoft in US court to stop Activision takeover (Reuters)
Appeals court rejects China Telecom’s bid to overturn US ban (Reuters)
Big Tech divides and conquers to block key bipartisan bills (Bloomberg News)
Police seize COVID-19 technology to expand global surveillance (Associated Press)
Faxes and floppy disks: Japan’s bureaucracy needs an upgrade (Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Julia Mio Inuma)
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