Lawmakers say that testimony from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is galvanizing members of both parties to unify behind sweeping proposals targeting social media companies, after years of stalled attempts, with some calling it the tech industry’s “Big Tobacco moment.”

“This time feels distinctly different,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), chair of the Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee, said in an interview. “The public has been engaged and outraged in a very different way.”

Multiple lawmakers said Haugen’s Tuesday Senate subcommittee testimony, arguing that Facebook systematically placed profits over users’ well-being, marks a turning point in Congress’s long-running efforts to enact barriers for large social media companies.

“Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have completely lost America’s trust,” Blumenthal said. “The culmination of betrayals of trust at a certain point break the dam.”

Since revelations surfaced that Russian actors exploited Facebook to spread disinformation during the 2016 election, the company has been embroiled in near constant scandal in Washington, with lawmakers pursuing a varied regulatory agenda. But efforts to move individual bills have largely stalled, in part because Republicans and Democrats have conflicting ideas on many key tech issues. Despite years of negotiations and bipartisan concerns about data security, for example, lawmakers have been unable to even agree on a federal privacy framework.

Lawmakers previously issued promises that both Russian interference and the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal would be a turning point in rallying support for regulating tech giants. “The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) at a hearing with executives from Facebook and Twitter more than three years ago.

But Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn) said at a news conference Tuesday that because of Haugen’s testimony there’s willingness to address these issues in “a bipartisan fashion.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki echoed the sentiment Wednesday, telling reporters that President Biden is supportive of efforts to hold tech platforms accountable for harm, including Section 230, antitrust and privacy reforms. “He looks forward to working with Congress on these bipartisan issues,” Psaki said.

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen told lawmakers Oct. 5 what policies the company could adopt to make its products safer. (The Washington Post)

These big ambitions of bipartisan unity are about to collide with the realities of Capitol Hill, where partisan squabbles, competing priorities and lobbying forces have thwarted years of attempts to regulate the most valuable companies in the United States.

Tuesday’s hearing and subsequent interviews with lawmakers illuminated that there’s no clear consensus yet on exactly what bills lawmakers plan to prioritize to respond to Haugen’s insights. Lawmakers have floated myriad ideas to tackle concerns about the impact of social media, ranging from federal privacy legislation, protections for children and teens, algorithmic regulations, updates to competition laws and changes to Section 230, which shields companies from lawsuits over the content people share on their services.

Facebook has sought to position itself as a willing partner in Congress’s push to regulate the industry. In response to Haugen’s testimony last night, Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, said the company has been advocating for updated Internet regulations for several years.

“We’re committed to doing the best work we can, but at some level the right body to assess trade-offs between social equities is our democratically elected Congress,” he wrote.

Yet members of Congress say the company has not actually been willing to work with them on thorny issues, like reforming Section 230.

“Unfortunately, despite a pervasive ad campaign designed to tout its support for updated Internet regulations, Facebook’s proactive engagement has been limited and it has continued to sponsor a number of groups focused on undermining regulatory proposals,” Warner said in a statement.

Blumenthal, who on Tuesday called Haugen’s disclosures tech’s “Big Tobacco moment,” said any effort has to start with greater transparency from Facebook. The company today is a “black box” to lawmakers, he said. Facebook’s lack of transparency emerged as a central theme of Wednesday’s hearing, with Haugen advocating for a new government agency to interrogate the platform’s algorithms. She made analogies to automobile regulation to explain why she thinks policymakers haven’t been able rein in social media companies.

“This inability to see into Facebook’s actual systems and confirm they work as communicated is like the Department of Transportation regulating cars by only watching them drive down the highway,” Haugen said on Tuesday.

Blumenthal said there is “real possibility” of creating such an oversight agency, which would oversee the impacts of the Internet like the Food and Drug Administration provides oversight of the health effects of tobacco.

Despite this outpouring of goodwill, any attempt to create a new regulatory body would come up against a 50-50 split Senate, with conservatives likely to be wary of increasing government spending and creating more government agencies.

Even narrow measures to increase transparency of tech companies, backed by bipartisan support, have not gained traction in the past. In the aftermath of the Russian interference scandal, the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) worked with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Warner (D-Va.) to pass legislation known as the Honest Ads Act, which would have created more transparent reporting of political ads on social media. But the bill has languished in Congress, even after gaining public support from Facebook.

Blackburn said she believed it was time for a “serious look” at updating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a 1998 law that aims to provide protections for children under the age of 13 online, due to the ways technology has evolved since the law was enacted. She also said a national consumer privacy bill is “more than overdue” and she’s discussing the options with Blumenthal.

Some of the proposals on the table are at odds with Haugen’s pitch to lawmakers. Amid a big push in Congress to pass antitrust legislation addressing the power and influence of tech platforms, she told them that she’s opposed to breaking up Facebook. She warned lawmakers that they need to think beyond tweaks to Section 230 or a privacy bill.

In recent years, lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills that aim to make tech companies more responsible for harmful content found on their services and give users more control over how businesses use their data. And even though some of these measures have gained bipartisan support, most have failed to pass.

Researchers are calling on Congress to seize this moment to pass legislation that would enhance their ability to do outside research of social media platforms. Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School professor, wrote a draft bill that he published in a Washington Post op-ed that would enable the Federal Trade Commission to specify procedures for Facebook to make data available for outside researchers to analyze it. He said Facebook should have no power over which researchers gain access to the data, which should be left up to the FTC’s discretion.

Persily said his proposal already has the support of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), an influential moderate Republican. He said all other Internet regulation would require gaining a better understanding of what’s happening on tech platforms.

“We need to understand what the hell is happening on these platforms before we can create good public policy,” he said in an interview. “We need to do something immediately.”

He said it’s urgent for lawmakers to act now so that there are stronger safeguards in place before the 2024 election.

At Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers said the paralysis was in part due to the tech industry’s lobbying forces, which have grown to be some of the biggest spenders in Washington. Facebook spent nearly $20 million on federal lobbying in 2020, more than any other tech giant.

Blumenthal said he believes transparency is just a “bare minimum” step and said lawmakers need to consider more sweeping legislation targeting privacy protections, children’s online safety, competition law and Section 230.

Having said that this moment is different, legislating in this area will be very daunting and difficult,” Blumenthal said. “It’s complex, it’s challenging and there’s no question that Big Tech will spend tens of millions of dollars, and use armies of lobbyists and mount massive propaganda campaigns.”

Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.