Senator floats new ideas for US regulation, criticizing inability to adapt

Democratic Senator of Virginia Mark Warner and his staff have penned new ideas for the US technology regulatory environment, pointing the finger at inadequacies and weaknesses in the current system.

The paper, first seen by Axios, puts forward a twenty-point plan for fighting online disinformation on social media, while also suggesting new rules which sound somewhat similar to recent GDPR. The ideas will unlikely be welcomed by the big boys of the technology world who, on the surface, preach the benefits of consumer privacy, but have been battling the consequences of regulatory changes on the advertising spreadsheets.

“The speed at which these products have grown and come to dominate nearly every aspect of our social, political and economic lives has in many ways obscured the shortcomings of their creators in anticipating the harmful impact of their use,” the paper reads. “Government has failed to adapt and has been incapable or unwilling to adequately address the impacts of these trends on privacy, competition and public disclosure.”

Fake news and disinformation is of course a dominant feature of the paper, it is a political hot potato at the moment, but in addressing consumer privacy, Warner is perhaps taking an unusual stance for a US politician. Many politicians in the European markets are sensitive to privacy and data protection, but this is not an overwhelming trend in the US unless there are PR points to win. The Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted the shallowness of point-scoring politicians, but also the inability for rule-makers to understand the digital economy. The ‘Senator, we sell ads’ comment from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will not be forgotten easily.

But in Warner, privacy advocates might have found an ally. Warner is a regular critic of the technology industry and the apparent abuses/shortcomings of the companies which profit so readily from the freedom embedded in social media. The stalking of consumers online is an example Warner cites, admitting there are benefits though a lack of education on how the digital economy actually works has created a naïve user;

“Users have no reason to expect that certain browsing behaviour could determine the interest they pay on an auto-loan, much less what their friends posts could be used to determine that,” Warner notes.

Warner’s plan is to encourage transparency. For fake news, this could mean stating the origin of the news or labelling bots. It is an interesting idea, but due to the pace of development in AI and the effectiveness of VPN’s these could be very difficult objectives to achieve. Should such ideas make their way into policy and legislation, it would present a massive headache to the internet giants. Making these platforms liable for any disinformation should also be a huge worry.

Another idea is that of ‘information fiduciaries’. Originally proposed by Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin, certain services providers should be held to greater level of accountability because of the user dependence on their, such as search engines, and should pledge to not utilise or manipulate data for the benefit of the platform or third-parties. This sounds like a very interesting idea, but considering the US is a country defined by capitalism, Warner will struggle to get mainstream support here.

The final area we would like to address is the suggestion of new regulations which mirror GDPR in Europe. This is one which will likely receive a significant amount of attention for lobbyists, as anyone who was involved with making organizations GDPR-ready will know the heartache which was felt. Facebook is one company which pointed towards GDPR as a reason for less than favourable financial results, therefore the suggestion of bringing these rules across the Atlantic will surely be a kickstart to the lobby machine.

The ideas presented by Warner are wide-ranging, and in fairness, the cons are discussed in detail. These are not hard recommendations for the future regulatory-framework of the US, but ideas which need to be assessed. The US is not alone in its inability to effectively and fairly regulate the technology industry, or protect the consumer, but conversations do not seem to be taking place to understand how rules need to be adapted.

As mentioned before, Zuckerberg’s simple explanation of how Facebook makes money to Senator Orrin Hatch highlights one of the more worrying aspects of government today; the people supposedly in charge do not understand the basic concepts of the digital economy. The shortcomings are very apparent, and something needs to be done to ensure growth of the industry does not come at the expense of the consumers experience, safety or privacy.

Warner’s ideas will probably be received as extreme, but it should serve a good purpose; the conversation will be taken forward.

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