The Vice Chairman for the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), has proposed a sweeping list of options for fighting online disinformation and helping users of platforms like Facebook and Google retain some semblance of privacy over their user data.
The white paper, first obtained by Axios, has been “circulated in tech policy circles in recent weeks” and outlines ways in which the United States can respond to two of the major tech scandals in recent years — including Cambridge Analytica and Russian hacking before the 2016 election — as well as wider concerns about the encroaching monopoly of the major platforms.
“Firms with large preexisting data sets have potentially insuperable competitive advantages over new entrants,” the paper reads. “Dominant platforms have also aggressively commercialized psychological research, identifying ways to exploit cognitive biases and psychological vulnerabilities to keep users on their site and addicted to their products.”
Some of the policy proposals are echoes of previous ideas, or ones which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have widely-touted that their platforms are already doing. These include clearly identifying bots, determining where posts originated from, and curtailing inauthentic accounts.
However, there are other interesting ideas in Warner’s plan, including a “Public Initiative for Media Literacy” which would focus on “building media literacy from an early age…[to] help build long-term resilience to foreign manipulation of our democracy.” Baltic countries like Finland and Latvia have already started working on similar programs that they say have been instrumental in helping to combat Russian interference in the region. Another idea would label web platforms “information fiducaries,” which means that they would need to follow similar code of conducts as law or financial institutions.
Warner also proposed a change to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which holds that “intermediaries” are not liable for torts or criminal wrongdoing. Zuckerberg has long-argued that Facebook is “not a media company,” and thus not legally responsible for the content posted on its site, nor is it subject to the advertising regulations that govern print and TV.
By changing Section 230, tech companies would be responsible for taking down defamatory material, threats, and fake accusations, as opposed to victims playing “whack-a-mole” to identify the culprit and report them.
“A revision to Section 230 could provide the ability for users who have successfully proved that sharing of particular content by another user constituted a dignitary tort,” the paper reads. “With this notice, platforms would be liable in instances where they did not prevent the content in question from being re-uploaded.”
However, while these proposals are interesting, one is notably absent: the call for the break-up of major tech companies. What’s more, a Republican-controlled Congress would likely be incredibly reluctant to invest in Warner’s plan. But it is extremely possible that some of these proposals come to pass, or are introduced at separate levels in states.