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Congress still isn’t sure what to do about Big Tech

“The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” said Democrat Vice Chair Sen. Mark Warner.

by Alex Thompson
Sep 5 2018, 10:07pm

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey faced questions well beyond Russian interference and fake news in a day of hearings on Capitol Hill that swerved between Chinese government censorship, data privacy, Iranian trolls, misogyny, racism, “shadow banning,” and illegal drugs sold on their platforms.

But as they took questions, first from the Senate Intelligence Committee, and then for Dorsey in front of a decidedly more raucous hearing in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, they provided few definitive answers to the lawmakers looking for answers. Both the regulators and the regulated appeared to be grappling with the real-world consequences of the social networks.

The line of questioning, however, suggested that government officials are circling in on the cash-rich tech companies, even if they don’t know yet know what they want to do with them.

“The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” said Democrat Vice Chair Sen. Mark Warner in his opening statement. “Where we go from here is an open question.”

Warner’s Republican counterpart on the committee appeared to agree.

Read: Sen. Marco Rubio just threatened to "take care of" Alex Jones to his face

“Technology always moves faster than regulation, and to be frank, the products and services that enable social media don’t fit neatly into the consumer safety and regulatory constructs of the past,” Republican Chairman Richard Burr said at the hearing’s outset, the fourth Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about social networks since the 2016 elections.

Always wary of being left out of a news cycle, the Trump administration also joined the fray on Wednesday when the Justice Department announced a meeting with state attorneys general later this month to discuss whether social media companies are stifling competition or certain political perspectives, something conservatives have long alleged.

For their part, Dorsey and Sandberg came with a similar message: we will do better.

But both were mostly noncommittal on how exactly they would get better and especially circumspect on what possible government regulation they would support, if any.

Google didn’t show up at all and left an empty chair after the committee rejected an offer to testify from their head of public policy. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida suggested that Google no-showing was “maybe it’s because they’re arrogant.”

Read: Here's what Facebook and Twitter are about to tell Congress

It’s not clear how illuminating Google’s answers would have been if it had attended, as Dorsey and Sandberg proved deft at giving long, slow answers to run out the clock while vaguely pledging on future improvements.

“We found ourselves unprepared and ill-equipped for the immensity of the problems we've acknowledged,” Dorsey told the Senate Intelligence Committee where he introduced himself as “typically pretty shy” and a man of few words. “Abuse, harassment, troll armies, propaganda through bots and human coordination, disinformation campaigns and divisive filter bubbles — that's not a healthy public square."

Sandberg also acknowledged that, at least when it came to Russian interference during the 2016 election, Facebook was “too slow to spot this and too slow to act." She didn’t guarantee success in shutting down foreign interference in future elections but said that the company is “more determined than our opponents and we will keep fighting."

Sandberg also documented steps the company had made to better protect user data in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that become public earlier this year.

The scale of the problem still appears immense. Dorsey said that Twitter is identifying 8 to 10 million “suspicious” accounts every week and Sandberg said that Facebook is blocking “millions of attempts to register false accounts every single day.”

Dorsey was subjected to a double grilling on Wednesday as the Twitter CEO also came to the House Energy and Commerce Committee in an ominously titled hearing: “Twitter: Transparency and Accountability.”

At that Twitter-focused hearing, Republican Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia showed the scale of the problem by displaying ads for illegal drugs like cocaine that had been posted just in the past hour despite Twitter’s rules against such ads. Dorsey committed to address the problem but it was unclear how.

McKinley’s line of questioning echoed his state’s senator, Democrat Joe Manchin, from Wednesday morning’s hearing which focused on illicit and addictive drugs being traded on the platforms. West Virginia is in the midst of an opioid epidemic that led to over 1,000 overdose deaths in 2017.

At the moment, platforms do not have legal liability for the illegal drugs sold using their tech. Manchin suggested changing that law in the way that Congress recently changed tech companies’ liability for sex trafficking, legislation that some critics have said was overly broad, punished sex workers, and drove real trafficking further underground.

Both Dorsey and Sandberg warned of further changing the rules, enshrined in section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act. Sandberg and Dorsey said that such regulations could undermine the companies’ efforts to fix all the other problems.

“The only reason we’re able to speculate we can increase more health in a public square is because of CDA 230 so we’d need to finely balance what those changes are and what that means,” said Dorsey.

And Sandberg echoed that, saying that said the current law allows Facebook “look for things [illegal content] proactively without increasing our liability.”

Ever cautious, she didn’t completely shoot down the potential change either, saying “we would want to work very closely on how this would be enacted.”

Cover: Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey are sworn-in for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing concerning foreign influence operations' use of social media platforms, on Capitol Hill, September 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)