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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

A new road map for reining in social media companies gains steam

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Happy Wednesday!

Below: What Truth Social's launch day stumbles mean for it long term, and why civil society groups want European tech legislation changed. First:

A new road map for reining in social media companies is gaining steam

For years, U.S. policymakers have been railing against social media companies for allegedly stoking divisions and facilitating the spread of noxious content on their sites, with little to show for it beyond distant threats of regulation.

These efforts have largely taken a single form: proposals to roll back the protections that shield tech companies from lawsuits over their users’ posts, known as Section 230.

But there are signs of growing momentum for a different approach, focused instead on channeling regulators’ consumer protection powers.

It’s a strategy that has shaped a slew of recent proposals aimed at cracking down on platforms that mislead users about their practices and policies, or that fail to be sufficiently transparent about their products.

On Tuesday, three House Democrats unveiled legislation that would create a new digital safety bureau at the Federal Trade Commission tasked with issuing transparency requirements and guidance on safety features to digital platforms.

Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) cast the proposal in a statement as an effort to “finally bring social media platforms’ broken promises and black box practices to light.” And in a news release announcing the bill, the offices leading the charge likened imposing new regulations on online platforms to crafting new “seat belt” or “speed bump” safety standards.

That approach resonates with a separate proposal led by the leaders of the Senate’s consumer protection panel that would create new children’s safety requirements for tech companies, enforced by state attorneys general and federal regulators at the FTC.

“I think of this law as kind of a product safety law,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is leading the bill alongside Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), told reporters last week.

“For way too long, the Internet was regarded as different from all other products,” he said. “Well, now we’re going to have guardrails and safeguards for the Internet that will enable children and parents to protect themselves.”

While lawmakers are pushing to give regulators more tools to crack down on these supposed consumer protection harms, some state officials and advocates are making the case that there’s more to be done with the laws already on the books.

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) highlighted an advocacy group’s lawsuit that accused Facebook of violating D.C. consumer protection laws by making misrepresentations about how effective it is in cracking down on hate speech, as we first reported in The Technology 202.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s complaints to federal regulators about the tech giant have largely focused on allegations it misled the public and investors about its policies. While those were filed under Securities and Exchange Commission standards, the legal argument resonates with common consumer protection principles that companies shouldn’t use unfair or deceptive practices to mislead their customers.

New York University adjunct law professor Paul Barrett argued that expanding regulators’ powers to crack down on consumer protection harms on social media could offer a more comprehensive solution than revamping Section 230.

“Congress would be well-advised to think about this in a more fundamental way, and ask the question: Does it make sense for the social media industry to go without the kind of oversight that almost all other industries are subjected to?” said Barrett, who serves as deputy director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

In a new white paper released Wednesday, Barrett and former Stern Center fellow Lily Warnke make the case that boosting those powers would help “reduce the level of hate speech, health misinformation, incitement to political violence, and other forms of harmful content spread by social media platforms.”

The paper suggests Congress should pass legislation to make clear that regulators have the tools to require greater transparency and accountability from tech platforms, including ensuring that their content moderation systems “procedurally deliver on promises made to users about platform rules and enforcement practices.”

Barrett argued this type of approach shows a “deep-seated respect for the First Amendment,” which means it could help steer clear of fraught disputes about speech.

But proposals to boost regulators’ consumer protection powers still face major political hurdles. While some have bipartisan backing, others have only limited Democratic support.

Efforts to expand the FTC’s enforcement authority to levy fines and punish companies have faced steady pushback from business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as moderate Republicans who worry about regulatory overreach. Barrett said he has no delusions about the likelihood of the proposals advancing anytime soon.

“Any attempt to pass any kind of broad legislation in this area is going to face a very uphill fight, there’s no doubt about that, and if you were a betting person I don’t think you’d bet a lot of money that the broader FTC-oriented legislation is going to get enacted in 2022,” he told me.

Our top tabs

Glitchy launch of Trump’s social media app raises questions about its viability

Former president Donald Trump’s allies hyped up Truth Social for months by claiming it would revolutionize social media and take down the mainstream sites that banned Trump last year, Drew Harwell reports. But the site’s offerings are nearly identical to existing social media sites, and its early struggles have fueled doubts about its ability to withstand long-term challenges.

The app has faced a raft of issues:

  • The site’s own name is misspelled on a “help” page.
  • Its logo is identical to the logo of British truck solar panel seller Trailar, and a company executive told Drew that it’s “seeking legal advice to understand next steps and options available to protect our brand.”
  • The site was unavailable for most of its launch day, and many users weren’t able to successfully sign up for accounts.

“The basic thing they needed to actually get right, to get someone in the door, they couldn’t get right,” said privacy researcher Bill Fitzgerald. The “ineptitude of the rollout,” he added, could be a warning of future issues ahead: “There is no better sign of a rushed implementation than the fact that you can’t onboard anybody. So I’m hard-pressed to understand why anyone would trust that these people would keep their information safe.” Company representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Civil society groups say E.U. digital rules should let users sue tech giants

European legislation targeting the tech industry’s “gatekeepers” should let individuals — not just businesses — sue if it’s violated, 31 groups and academics said. The request comes as European lawmakers and countries iron out the Digital Markets Act, Reuters’s Foo Yun Chee reports.

“The DMA must enable users, both individually and collectively, to bring enforcement actions for violation of DMA rules before national courts,” they said in a letter to E.U. institutions. E.U. countries have ignored the request, though E.U. lawmakers are open to the idea of letting individuals be able to sue, she reports.

Union accuses Amazon of interfering in Alabama warehouse vote

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union told the National Labor Relations Board that Amazon removed union literature from employee break rooms and made workers attend anti-union meetings, Reuters’s Daniel Wiessner reports. Companies are allowed to hold mandatory anti-union meetings, though the union said these practices are coercive and employees should be allowed to opt out. NLRB general counsel Jennifer A. Abruzzo has said she wants the agency to look into that precedent.

The accusations could give the union an avenue for challenging the vote if they lose, Wiessner reports.

Amazon told Reuters that it was confident that it followed the law. “Our focus remains on working directly with our team to make Amazon a great place to work,” it told the outlet.

Rant and rave

Slack had some issues Tuesday morning that were eventually resolved. The Los Angeles Times's Candace Amos:

Video game developer Rami Ismail:

Spotlight PA's Danielle Ohl:

Agency scanner

Identity verification service ID.me has a lucrative contract with the VA. Veterans and their families say it’s locked them out of disability payments and emergency assistance. (Insider)

Inside the industry

Facial recognition company Clearview AI seeks first big deals, discloses research chief (Reuters)

Amazon sues two companies that allegedly help fill the site with fake reviews (CNBC)

U.S. opposes Canada's digital services tax proposal (Reuters)

Facebook scammers are shilling fake cryptocurrency using Big Tech’s biggest names (The Markup)

Workforce report

Apple just dropped its mask mandate in most stores (Protocol)

Tesla hit by another lawsuit over racism by ex-worker (Reuters)

Trending

US embassy in Ukraine posts cringe memes as it retreats to Poland (Motherboard)

Amazon’s Astro home robot remains elusive six months after debut (Bloomberg)

Mentions

  • David Asher, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is joining microelectronics firm Menlo Micro as director of federal business development. Thomas DiNanno, an adjunct fellow at the think tank, is joining the company as a senior adviser. Jerry McGinn, the executive director of the George Mason University School of Business's Center for Government Contracting, is joining the company as strategic adviser of U.S. government operations.

Daybook

  • International antitrust enforcers and FTC commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson speak at the George Mason Law Review's 25th annual antitrust symposium, which takes place this week.
  • New America’s Open Technology Institute hosts an event on digital equity and spectrum auctions on Wednesday at noon.
  • Colorado Attorney General Philip Weiser (D) speaks at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology’s Privacy Law Forum at 2:20 p.m. on Thursday.
  • Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and U.S. Chief Data Scientist Denice Ross speak at the State of the Net conference Monday.
  • Former president Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, speaks at a Heritage Foundation event on U.S. tech competition with China on Monday at 11 a.m.

Before you log off

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