Tech regulation is inconsistent and outdated. What will it take for that to change?
Nov 8, 2021

Tech regulation is inconsistent and outdated. What will it take for that to change?

Advocates want reform. Businesses want it. Members of Congress want it. "It's a really loud and active conversation," in the words of one expert. And yet ...

When Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress, she hit on one theme over and over again: that new laws are needed to regulate the tech industry. 

“As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable,” Haugen said.

That could change, according to Alexandra Givens, who runs the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology. “It’s a really loud and active conversation,” she said, adding that bills and regulations in the works fall into three main categories.

“One is content moderation: What should stay up on those platforms? What should come down? And should there be laws about it?” Givens said.

And if there should be laws, what does that mean for free speech? “A law saying such a social media platform is responsible if hate speech is on their platform really creates some difficult challenges,” Givens said, especially if those laws are different across state lines.  

You’ve probably encountered ads from the tech industry asking for federal rules, like, “If the Internet has come a long way in the last 25 years, shouldn’t internet regulations too?”

That ad, created by Facebook, refers to the Communications Decency Act, one of the original pieces of internet legislation passed in 1996. It includes Section 230, which shields platforms from being held liable for what users post. Many are calling for that section to be repealed or modified, especially those upset with the deplatforming of former President Donald Trump.

So that’s a hornets nest, and it’s only one of those buckets of regulations Givens was talking about. “A second is about data privacy,” she said. “How are the platforms gathering people’s personal information? What are they doing with it?”

There are at least two dozen bills before Congress that deal with privacy. One would establish an independent federal “Data Protection Agency.” Another would block the federal government from collecting biometric data.

“And everybody agrees we should have a bill, but they don’t agree on what the bill should look like” said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington D.C. think tank. “And that’s why the legislation is stuck in limbo right now.”

The tech industry absolutely wants federal privacy legislation, Atkinson said. “And the reason for that is that the worst thing in the world for them would be to have 50 different privacy bills. They hate that,” he said.

A few states already have their own laws, including California, Virginia, and Colorado. More states have bills in the works.

Another area of tech regulation, or lack thereof, said Givens, has to do with how tech companies and platforms work together — rules and laws governing “interoperability.”

“So what that’s trying to do is allow new startups to come into the space,” she said. “And they would be able to tap into the Facebook feed or the Twitter feed, so that if you have followers on a particular platform, they can also see you and opt in to seeing your information on another platform.”

Lawmakers get very interested in that debate because it has to do with business competition. Members of Congress are flocking to sign on to bills addressing this issue.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk to Senator Amy Klobuchar, co-sponsor of one of those bills.

And all this week, we’ll be looking at the different ways the federal government is trying to regulate the tech industry — and what it will take to make it happen.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer