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Democrats are considering proposals to rein in online advertising, deter bias in algorithms, and create a federal office to oversee social media.
The proposals are among five bills a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee will debate Tuesday as Democrats and Republicans shift their focus away from big technology companies’ liability shield.
Lawmakers’ attempts to hold companies such as Twitter Inc. and Meta Platforms Inc. accountable for harmful online practices have largely centered on limiting or repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which offers platforms legal protection against content that users post.
Members are sharply divided over what to do with the statute, with Republicans alleging censorship of conservative views and Democrats saying companies aren’t doing enough to take down disinformation.
While a deadlock remains on that issue, lawmakers are weighing other options, including new regulatory tools, more limited parameters around legal advertising, and educating consumers.
“Big Tech continues to prioritize profits over people while fighting to preserve its lack of accountability,” Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said ahead of the hearing. “The time for self-regulation is coming to an end.”
The Banning Surveillance Advertising Act (H.R. 6416), introduced by Schakowsky and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), would prohibit networks from using personal data such as race, gender, and religion, and personal data purchased from brokers to target ads.
Schakowsky, Eshoo, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who introduced a companion bill, say the legislation would address a predatory surveillance business model that results in disinformation, extremism, voter suppression, and other public harms.
The Algorithmic Accountability Act (H.R. 6580), introduced by Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), aims to combat software-perpetuated discrimination by requiring companies to conduct algorithm bias assessments. It would create a Federal Trade Commission office with 75 staffers to enforce the law.
The Digital Services Oversight and Safety Act (H.R. 6796) from Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) also would empower the FTC by establishing a Bureau of Digital Services Oversight and Safety, comprised of at least 500 staffers. Platforms would be required to have systems to receive complaints about their content moderation. Companies would also be required to disclose moderation practices, such as the hiring and training of human content moderators.
Trahan said her legislation would be “a shot of expertise in the arms of enforcers and legislators alike.”
The Democrats’ bills lack Republican cosponsors, but the panel will consider two GOP bills. One (H.R. 6755) from subcommittee ranking member Gus Bilirakis’ (R-Fla.) would study ways to improve cooperation among law enforcement, companies, and users to combat illegal online activity. Another (H.R. 6786) from Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) would launch an FTC-led online safety campaign.
Tuesday’s hearing is the third in a series panel Democrats are spearheading on big tech’s business practices.
The first focused on Section 230 and featured Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who leaked internal documents showing the company was aware of its harmful practices. Social media companies are focused on short-term profits and don’t take their long-term impact on society into consideration, Haugen told lawmakers, urging them to focus on that incentive structure.
Members at the second hearing debated a variety of bills to foster greater algorithmic transparency and to design protections for kids online, among other proposals.
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