After Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress last week, lawmakers are fired up about the egregious overuse of what was thought to be “private” user data on social media. Most notably, the criticism of the tech giant comes after political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica gained access to the personal information of at least 87 million Facebook users.
Congress is now focusing on privacy legislation when it comes to targeting Big Tech. Several bills have already been introduced in Washington that will crackdown on information use and regulate the tech industry and social media giants.
While Congress has decided that privacy legislation and further regulation is needed for Facebook and other online service providers, Republican and Democrats cannot agree on the ways in which they should be implemented. Nevertheless, it seems that all roads end with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The Data Broker Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act would expand the FTC’s authority to let it pursue unfair and deceptive practices by internet service providers, more then just Facebook. As of now, the FTC can only act against such practices on the part of edge providers, outfits like Facebook, Google, or Twitter that offer services to users. It also would create transparency and control for consumers over their personal data insofar as consumers would have access to the volumes of personal data collected about them. Furthermore, there have been calls to have the ability to correct false user information that may hinder one’s ability to secure gainful employment, insurance, housing, or credit opportunities.
In a report from The Hill, Democratic Congressman Hank Johnson (GA-4) said, “I introduced these critical bills first in 2013 and again in 2016, and plan to reintroduce them soon…legislation that not only protects consumers’ personal information from being manipulated by corporate and political marketing interests, but truly gives consumers the power to control and decide how their information is stored and used.”
The proposed legislation would give the FTC power to proactively set the rules protecting user privacy. Currently, the bill has limited support and only from Democrats.
Another bill is the Balancing the Rights Of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly (BROWSER) Act, set to prohibit the sharing of sensitive personal data of users by Facebook and other tech companies. Introduced in 2017 by Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (TN-7), data such as financial, health, and web-browsing information would be protected and only be able to be shared with the permission of the user.
According to a report from the Tennessean, during the exchange between Blackburn and Zuckerberg, the congresswoman reference her bill saying, “We need some rules and regulations…The Browser Act is 13 pages, so you [Zuckerberg] can easily become familiar with it.”
The legislation would also task the FTC to enforce the rules. The Republican-led bill has gained traction since the Zuckerberg hearing, but has not gained much support from Democrats.
A third legislative fix, but possibly the toughest effort to rein in online ad targeting, is the Customer Online Notification for Stopping Edge-provider Network Transgressions (CONSENT) Act. Forwarded by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Ed Markley (D-MA), the only two sponsors as of now, it would place significant constraints on Facebook data collection and user information collection by social media companies and other online service providers.
Notably, the bill would require an, “explicit opt-in consent from users to use, share, or sell any personal information, as well as clear notification any time data is collected, shared, or used,” according to The Verge. Also charging the FTC with enforcement, novel security and breach reporting requirements would be put into place to keep users abreast of information gathering.
Lastly, although it does not have a punchy anagram, the Secure and Protect Americans’ Data Act (SPADA), introduced by Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (IL-9), mandates that new steps private sector companies must take to avoid being hacked. The bill was re-introduced in 2017 after the infamous Equifax breach that affected hundreds of million of Americans’ credit data and puts new requirements on those who experience data breaches.
CNBC reports that the legislation would also direct the FTC to instill specific proposals to establish data security standards and require prompt notification when data is misused. In the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica situation, Facebook would have been required to have processes to identify vulnerabilities, mitigate those vulnerabilities, and oversee those who have access to personal information through Facebook.
“It [Facebook] would have been required to notify law enforcement within 5 days and consumers within 30 days,” according to Schakowsky’s commentary.
Not all legislation currently being pushed is about user privacy. Online political ads are also being targeted.
Possibly the biggest contention with the Zuckerberg hearing and the way in which Facebook targets users was through political ads. There were worries that during the 2016 president election that foreign actors bought political ads on Facebook that were then distributed to users. Therefore, legislation is now being crafted to ward off foreign influence via social media on American elections.
The bipartisan Honest Ads Act, introduced by Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and John McCain (R-AZ), would require that political ads on social media would be tagged with a disclosure for users to see who bought them. It would also require the location of the company to be disclosed to Facebook or other social media and online advertising providers when purchased.
The legislation would amend the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act that only required such disclosures for political ads distributed on television, radio, and in print. The act has gained the support of Facebook and Twitter and there has been a congressional push to pass the bill ahead of the November midterm elections.
When it comes to privacy legislation, none of the proposals have gained much traction, even in a bipartisan fashion. Furthermore, questions are still being raised whether Facebook’s structure and market share constitute a monopoly, an issue raised by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
During the hearing, Graham pressured Zuckerberg to name a Facebook competitor; however, he sidetracked with describing the three-pronged business model Facebook is known for. The commentary has not found well with the South Carolina senator as he spoke of the automotive industry and how there is great competition that is not present in the industry in which Facebook reigns supreme.
With its dominant user base of over two billion people, lack of direct competition, and its undoubted pricing power, Facebook, as many have come to find, is a powerful force and could be considered a monopoly.