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Senators Mull Regulation of Social Media

Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have become an important force in American public discourse. Some politicians and commentators think they are too powerful. They want to see the federal government impose new rules on these sites. One Senate Democrat even says there may be strong bipartisan support to do just that.


Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey faced members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in early September to answer questions about how foreign governments may have meddled in U.S. elections. Google CEO Sundar Pichai was invited but did not attend the hearing.


This Senate scrutiny of social media comes on the heels of criticism by President Trump and prominent conservatives. The president tweeted in late August, “Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!” Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham echoed that thought a few days later on her Fox News show, saying, “There’s a thought that, given the enormity of these corporations, could there be a movement to treat [Twitter and Facebook] more like public utilities so they have some quasi-government oversight of these entities?”


As indicated by Ingraham’s idea, among the proposals to regulate social media sites is to have the government treat them as something like a public utility. This would recognize them as private entities but ones that are operated with a public purpose. The government would set rules that would prevent social media sites from denying a platform to users based on certain factors, such as political ideology.


Supporters of this level of regulation say that Facebook and Twitter operate much as the town square used to do, giving a space for people to speak and persuade others. As a virtual town square, the argument goes, these sites should allow everyone to speak. Big business has too much power to censor individuals, so the government must step in, according to those who are pushing for more federal oversight.


Opponents of this government regulations point to the dangers of government controlling media platforms. They argue that past federal rules on media content stifled debate about public policy. They say that social media companies should have the power to exclude speech that they deem offensive, such as that from the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, without fear of government reprisals.


While President Trump may be pushing for the federal government to have tighter control over social media companies, it is unclear if there is much support in Congress for such a proposal. Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said there is likely strong bipartisan support for legislation aimed at protecting privacy and cracking down on violent posts. He said that details of such a bill have not been finalized, however.


Should the government impose more regulations on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter? Do you think social media sites discriminate against conservative voices?

Can the Government Mandate Honest Online Ads?


In the wake of allegations over Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Congress is looking at regulating advertising on Facebook, Twitter, and other online platforms. This month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent two days testifying before members of the House of Representatives and the Senate on this and other topics. But some are asking if federal rules for online ads will be an effective way of bringing transparency to the electoral process.


Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, has introduced the “Honest Ads Act,” to expand federal regulation of election ads to cover those placed on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. If passed, that act would express the sense of Congress that “the dramatic increase in digital political advertisements, and the growing centrality of online platforms in the lives of Americans, requires the Congress and the Federal Election Commission to take meaningful action to ensure that laws and regulations provide the accountability and transparency that is fundamental to our democracy.”


For its enforcement provisions, the Honest Ads Act would expand the current federal rules governing electioneering to apply to ads that are being run online. This would require these ads to have some indication of who paid for them. The bill would also mandate that companies with more than 50 million monthly online visitors must maintain a database that has information on anyone who bought more than $500 in political ads, a copy of the ads, the rate charged, and the audience targeted.


Senator Klobuchar’s bill is cosponsored by 22 other Democratic senators and a lone Republican, John McCain of Arizona. There is also a companion bill in the House sponsored by Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington.


Supporters of this legislation say that it is a way to stop Russians and others from using Facebook and Twitter to influence American voters. They contend that mandatory disclosure on ads will help to prevent these activities from taking place in the future. Opponents of the bill say that anyone wishing to use online ads to meddle in U.S. elections can easily evade these reporting requirements. They also point out that maintaining the database as required in the bill will impose significant costs for online companies.


Both Facebook and Twitter have endorsed the bill, although Twitter said it would work with lawmakers to refine and revise it. The companies have also said that they would voluntarily work to provide more transparent information to the public about political ads.


Do you support expanding federal election regulations to cover online political advertisements? Or will these new rules be easily evaded by those looking to influence U.S. elections?



Washington Embraces Net Neutrality


If federal regulators will not impose net neutrality rules on the Internet, then states will take the lead on this issue. At least, that is what is happening in Washington state.


In early March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a net neutrality bill that passed the state legislature by large margins. This bill would prohibit Internet service providers from blocking content that complies with the law, slowing down or stopping Internet traffic based on content, or allowing companies to offer prioritization for customer who pay more.


This legislation essentially codifies the network neutrality regulations overturned by the Federal Communications Commission late last year. The FCC ruled that Congress had not granted the agency statutory power to enact such rules, reversing a decision that the FCC had made during the Obama Administration. Instead, the FCC enacted what it calls a “light touch framework.”


Companies affected by the Washington legislation are likely to challenge it in court. Some observers contend that FCC’s action pre-empts state legislation of this type. They say that states cannot usurp federal regulatory authority. Further, they argue that if such regulations were left to states, it would make it difficult for companies to offer services nationwide given the patchwork of different rules they would face.


Supporters of the Washington bill counter that the FCC ruled that it did not have authority to regulate the Internet in this way, so states are free to act. They say that such rules are essential to an open Internet, and the federal government has left no option but to pursue this issue in state legislatures.


Legislators in other states will be watching what happens with the Washington law. There are similar proposals being considered across the country. While some states may act before any legal challenges over the Washington legislation are complete, others will wait to see what the judiciary has to say. If this law is held to be legal, then there will likely be a number of other states that will enact similar measures.


Do you think that states should enact net neutrality legislation? Or do you think that different laws across the nation will hamper online innovation?


FCC Repeals Net Neutrality Rules


One of the most controversial policy votes of the year took place this week, but it didn’t happen in Congress. Instead, it happened at a regulatory agency – the Federal Communications Commission. Under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, the commissioners voted 3-2 to repeal “net neutrality” regulations. Depending on who you ask, this move will signal the death of the Internet as we know it or it is the federal government removing overbearing regulations that stiffle innovation.


The regulations in question date to 2015, when the FCC decided to regulate Internet service providers more stringently. In essence, the agency at that time classified the services they provide as a public utility, largely forcing providers not to discriminate in pricing, content, and the management of the network.


Not surprisingly, Internet service providers such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast opposed this new regulation. They did not like the fact that they were constrained from treating different types of customers differently when it came to pricing or network management. Internet content companies, such as Facebook and Twiter, lobbied hard for the regulation, seeing an advantage in being protected from higher charges when they use far more bandwidth than other websites or apps.


This new rule change does not remove federal oversight from the Internet. In fact, the rule mandates transparency for network management practices. The Federal Trade Commission also regulates Internet service providers. But it does lessen the ability of the government to set rules proactively that constrain Internet service providers.


Do you think the FCC should have maintained “net neutrality” rules to protect consumers? Or does rolling back this rule from 2015 give freedom for companies to innovate in ways that will serve customers better?


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