WASHINGTON — Congress should enact regulations to curb harmful practices by social media companies like Facebook, cybersecurity and privacy experts say. But they are skeptical that lawmakers will act and, if they do, whether the pace of policy can parallel the ever-changing technology. 

“It’s clear that some of these companies can’t always do the right thing on their own and need a regulatory stick to help them make better decisions,” Amanda Lenhart, a lead researcher at the Data & Society Research Institute, told Capital News Service.

Lawmakers appear to be moving toward a bipartisan consensus that some form of regulation of Facebook and other social media platforms is needed, especially after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed last week how her former employer allegedly manipulates its technology to focus on its growth rather than protect users from harmful content.

Facebook itself is publicly embracing regulation, at least in theory.

“We need greater transparency, so the systems that we have in place, …they should be held to account, if necessary, by regulation, so that people can match what our systems say they’re supposed to do from what actually happens,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, said on CNN Sunday. 

But industry observers say regulating Facebook would be complicated and has potential pitfalls. In any case, such a step would require both technical knowledge that Congress may lack and a drive to overcome inertia, they said.

“They have been trying to pass comprehensive privacy reform for over five years and it hasn’t happened yet,” said Dr. Jessica Vitak, associate professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies. 

In testimony last week before the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on consumer protection, Haugen revealed that Facebook’s leadership is aware of the dangers its platform’s algorithm poses, but said the company is willing to sacrifice users’ safety over profit. 

An exchange between Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and the subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, underscored bipartisan concerns over the impact Facebook and other social media platforms are having on children and teens.

Moran suggested the pair should put their differences aside to take on Facebook together.

Blumenthal responded: “Our differences are very minor, or they seem very minor in the face of the revelations that we have now seen, so I am hoping we can move forward.”

In March, Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-New Jersey, re-introduced a bill in the House called “Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act.” The legislation would hold social media platforms accountable for content that leads users to harmful behavior offline. Algorithms are computer calculations that platforms use to determine what content users see.  

So far, the House has not acted on the measure. 

Haugen repeatedly recommended during her testimony that a federal oversight agency be appointed to regulate tech companies like her former employer, Facebook. 

Vitak agreed with Haugen that there are implementable changes that could and should be made related to how technology companies are governed in the U.S. 

A new agency could immediately implement “soft interventions,” such as requiring social media platforms to force users to click on a link before resharing that link, according to Haugen.

An oversight committee in Congress, however, could be a problem, warned Dr. Richard Forno, assistant director at the Center for Cybersecurity at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Many lawmakers are far behind the learning curve on technology, he said.  

“You can’t have decrepit lawmakers who don’t understand the internet and think it’s this big scary place holding hearings and asking questions as everybody in the room rolls their eyes,” Forno said. “You have congressmen and senators who have never sent emails yet they’re on subcommittees overseeing parts of the internet.”

While some new laws governing social media and minors might be passed by Congress, anything technology-specific is in danger of being outdated, he said. 

The more realistic options for regulation include creating a new agency that provides oversight or pumping more resources into the Federal Trade Commission, the agency most responsible for protecting consumer privacy, experts said. 

“This is the kind of thing that takes specific industry expertise, it’s the job for a regulatory agency and not a congressional committee,” said Dr. Mark MacCarthy, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

Continuously updating regulations will be a challenge, said Dr. Joyram Chakraborty, associate professor at Towson University’s Department of Computer and Information Sciences. 

“The policy created will have to be revised within six to nine months because technologies are going to change,” Chakraborty said. 

Children are not the only ones at risk though, according to Chakraborty.

Anyone who does not fully understand how to use the technology faces potential harm from social media platforms, he said. 

Lenhart has spent much of her career studying young people and their use of technology. 

If regulations are not created thoughtfully, there will be downstream consequences that aren’t actually beneficial, she told CNS. 

Such consequences include creating regulatory dead zones, imposing heavy restrictions on tech companies who in turn, refuse to build anything at all, Lenhart said.

Some critics of social media platforms want Congress to revisit a provision of federal law, known as Section 230, that currently shields social media platforms from liability for content posted by third parties.

“Most of America doesn’t know about Section 230 and if you pushed a lot of members of Congress, they wouldn’t know either,” Blumenthal said.

In March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg submitted prepared testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on consumer protection, proposing changes to that provision. 

Platforms should be required to have “systems in place” for identifying unlawful content but they should not be liable if they miss something, Zuckerberg said. He did not testify in person.

Haugen told lawmakers that she strongly supports changing Section 230, but she warned reforms must be much broader. 

“The severity of this crisis demands that we break out of our previous regulatory frames,” Haugen said. 

There might be some momentum in Congress, but it’s counterbalanced by concerns over protecting free speech, said Dr. Anupam Joshi, director at the Center for Cybersecurity at UMBC.

“On one hand you could argue that large companies like Facebook are sort of getting away with stuff behind Section 230,” Joshi said. “On the other hand, if you repeal it, Facebook is still a behemoth.” 

Haugen tweeted on Monday that she will brief the Facebook Oversight Board on what she learned working at the company.

The Oversight Board, consisting of 20 independent experts helping Facebook make content policy decisions, posted on its website that the meeting would take place in the “coming weeks.” 

This article was originally published on CNSMaryland.org on Wednesday, October 13, 2021.

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