With no must-pass policy bills on the horizon and the Senate set to be occupied by budget fights and a Supreme Court confirmation in the fall, it is unlikely that any of Warner’s more ambitious proposals will become law before the midterm elections in November. But the proposals are a potential blueprint for intelligence committee lawmakers who, in just a few days, will challenge experts, and in September, will grill top executives from social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to identify where the federal government should intervene to prevent such platforms from being used to further fraudulent and exploitative campaigns. The Senate Intelligence Committee has yet to hold a public hearing with these officials, though Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before other House and Senate panels during the spring.
“The speed with 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 effects of their use,” Warner’s policy 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 discourse.”
In his paper, Warner acknowledges that lawmakers face an initial hurdle in President Trump, who “seems unwilling to touch the issue” of setting up an interagency, government-wide approach to address attacks on election and other infrastructure. Last week, Trump chaired an election security-focused meeting with members of the National Security Council — but failed to endorse or order his administration to pursue any specific measures going forward.
But it is also unclear how keen Republican lawmakers will be to endorse initiatives proposed by a Democrat during a high-stakes political season. One of Warner’s proposals, a requirement to disclose the funders of online advertisements, has existed for months as the Honest Ads Act — and only one of its 30 co-sponsors is a Republican: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been out of Washington, D.C. for several months, receiving treatment for a serious form of brain cancer.
Some of Warner’s proposals reflect demands that have been voiced elsewhere around Congress, such as his calls to improve national defenses against cyber intrusions and establish a “deterrence doctrine” to specify what steps the United States will take in response to cyber attacks.
But others envision a new legal conceptualization of social media companies, as entities with a fiduciary duty to their users, and only temporary custodians of content and information that users could have the right to take with them from platform to platform, much like the portability of telephone numbers from company to company. Warner imagines laws that would allow for audits of social media companies’ algorithms, as well as “public interest” laws that would let experts and academics scrutinize how companies are using the data they collect.
Warner demonstrates a preference for safeguarding the interests of government, academic innovators, and smaller companies in an environment in which large social media and tech giants are increasingly in control of “critical” technologies — such as digital mapping. He proposed establishing thresholds beyond which tech giants would have to provide fair — though not free — third-party access to such technology; the white paper also proposes offering approved academics and small businesses exclusive access to federal data sets “that even the largest platforms are pushing the Trump Administration to open.”
Warner’s proposals stop short, however, of advocating for federal regulation to downsize or undercut the core business model of the social media companies — beyond making it the company’s responsibility to identify bots and inauthentic accounts, as well as the geographic origin of the posts and accounts on their platforms.