Congressional white paper proposes sweeping changes to how tech platforms are regulated

There have been multiple sessions in Congress over the past year looking at the failures of digital platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, including their failure to properly limit the actions of trolls spreading misinformation during the 2016 election. But there have been very few concrete proposals from the government on how to deal with those failures, how to blunt the virtual monopoly some of the platforms have on certain kinds of information, or how to handle user privacy.

Democratic Senator Mark Warner hopes to fill that gap with a white paper he has been circulating in governmental and tech circles over the past few weeks, according to a report from Axios (which obtained a copy of the paper from an unknown source). The proposals contained in the paper are wide-ranging, and in some cases may even be politically impossible, but at least someone has started an official discussion about some of the potential decisions Washington could take.

The paper states that the revelations of the past year, including evidence that Russian trolls manipulated Facebook, have “revealed the dark underbelly of an entire ecosystem.” It goes on to say:

“The speed with which these products have grown and come to dominate nearly every aspect of our social, political and economic lives has in many ways obscured the shortcomings of their creators in anticipating the harmful effects of their use. Government has failed to adapt and has been incapable or unwilling to adequately address the impacts of these trends on privacy, competition, and public discourse.”

When it comes to misinformation, the Warner paper proposes that platforms be required to label automated or “bot” accounts, and also do more to identify who is behind anonymous or pseudonymous accounts, and it proposes that a failure to do these things might be bet by Federal Trade Commission sanctions. But would either of these things actually help solve the issues Congress is concerned about?

Experts in misinformation say bots are just one part of the problem, and that the behavior of what are sometimes called “cyborgs”—partially automated accounts run by human beings—is also important. And while anonymity can be a shield for some trolls, others are more than happy to engage in all kinds of bad behavior under their real names. The paper also admits that identifying users could backfire if it invades the privacy of journalists or others who have real reasons for wanting to remain anonymous.

One other significant change the Warner paper proposes is a change to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives the platforms immunity from prosecution for content that is uploaded by their users. Since some users complain that harassing material is often re-uploaded after being removed because of defamation, etc., the white paper recommends that Section 230 be amended so that the platforms could face sanctions if they don’t prevent such material from reappearing.

In addition, the paper argues that the US should pass privacy-protection legislation similar to the General Data Protection Regulation now in force in Europe, including the right to data portability and what is often called “the right to be forgotten.” It notes, however, that in order to have a GDPR-like regime, the US would have to create a central body to administer the law, something it doesn’t currently have.

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