A council launching this week aims to sidestep those disputes by proposing reforms that tackle issues of bipartisan concern, including children’s safety and national security.
The newly minted Council for Responsible Social Media, set up by the nonpartisan nonprofit Issue One, features a wide-ranging and influential lineup of former U.S. lawmakers and federal officials, advocates, scholars, industry leaders and whistleblowers.
They include former Democratic House majority leader Dick Gephardt, former defense secretary and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, former Jan. 6 House select committee adviser and Republican congressman Denver Riggleman, former Google ethicist and Center for Humane Technology co-founder Tristan Harris and Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.
“This is not a think tank. This is an action tank,” Gephardt told The Technology 202. “We want to see results.”
The group is staking out three initial areas of focus: how social media platforms may adversely affect children’s mental health, how they can be weaponized by foreign adversaries to the detriment of U.S. national security and how they may exacerbate societal divisions.
“The core goal of the commission is to really show that there are bipartisan paths forward … that involve having companies have to actually talk about what is their role in society,” Haugen said in an interview.
Haugen said the council can move the debate around social media accountability forward by focusing on areas of “common ground,” like concerns around algorithmic amplification, transparency and platform design choices.
Haugen said proposals the council might explore include giving users, particularly children, the option to “reset algorithms” so they do not keep wandering down the same risky “rabbit holes.”
By focusing on systemic issues, she said, the group might be able to help build support for ideas that sidestep thorny speech debates.
The council has received roughly $250,000 in funding collectively from the Omidyar Network, the Newton and Rochelle Becker Charitable Trust and the Wend Collective, according to Issue One spokesperson Cory Combs. Combs said the council has not received direct funding from any tech companies. Some of the members, including Gephardt and Panetta, have ties to firms that have represented industry giants.
The Omidyar Network, a philanthropic venture launched by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, has pushed for greater regulation of the tech giants. The Newton and Rochelle Becker Charitable Trust is a foundation that describes itself as a “support organization” for Jewish communities. The Wend Collective is a philanthropic group launched by Walmart magnate James Walton.
The council may also rally around legislation that already has bipartisan support, such as recent Senate bills on kids’ online safety and platform transparency, Haugen said.
One of those proposals, the Kids Online Safety Act, would give parents greater control over their children’s online activity and require that platforms give kids the option to opt out of algorithmic recommendations and other potentially harmful features. The other, the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, would force companies to turn over data about their services to researchers, or face fresh liability threats if they don’t.
Both proposals have bipartisan support, and the children’s safety bill advanced out of committee in the Senate with broad backing. But neither has a counterpart in the House, and the latter hasn’t been formally introduced, signaling they may both still face a long path to passage.
The council is also poised to shine a brighter spotlight on how U.S. companies may be playing into the hands of foreign adversaries — scrutiny that has largely focused on TikTok, owned by Beijing-based tech giant ByteDance.
The council includes a slew of national security heavyweights, including former defense secretary Chuck Hagel, former CIA director Porter Goss and former Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director Chris Krebs.
Haugen said one concept the group may explore is requiring “consistent reporting” by companies about how much they are investing to counter foreign influence operations.
The group is launching ahead of a summit in Washington on Thursday, where it plans to lay out a “plan of action for the months and years ahead,” according to a release.
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Rant and rave
Avatars in the Meta metaverse will soon have legs. Our colleague Naomi Nix:
Meta announces legs in the metaverse feels like the highlight, tbh— Naomi Nix (@NaomiNixWrites) October 11, 2022
Editor Dan Skellington:
Reporter Alex Barinka:
I am here in the metaverse, still virtually legless, watching Zuckerberg announce legs.— Alex Barinka (@alexbarinka) October 11, 2022