Throughout history, Congress has established expert agencies to oversee important parts of the American economy — from agriculture to drugs to railroads. Now amid growing concerns about the power of Silicon Valley, a Democratic senator suggests reforming current institutions isn’t enough: a new federal watchdog is needed to regulate the country’s most influential tech companies.
Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) today introduced the Digital Platform Commission Act, legislation to establish a new five-person commission responsible for protecting consumers in the age of Big Tech. According to the bill viewed exclusively by The Washington Post, the agency would have the power to interrogate the algorithms powering major tech platforms, and to set new rules to ensure the biggest companies are transparent about how they handle thorny decisions around content moderation on their platforms.
“We need an agency with expertise to have a thoughtful approach here,” he said.
Regulators’ current focus on competition problems in tech does not address many of the industry’s most pressing problems, according to Bennet, such as foreign disinformation, children’s safety and the potentially radicalizing effect of platform and product designs.
The bill represents a growing awareness that the federal government is consistently outmatched in resources and tech skills when examining massive Silicon Valley companies. The Federal Trade Commission, which currently does much of the oversight of the tech industry, and the Justice Department, which has brought a major antitrust case against Google, have traditionally taken a more reactive approach to abuses in the tech industry — sometimes at a far slower pace than the industry moves. FTC Chair Lina Khan has said that the agency’s staff and resources are strained under a crush of merger filings and has asked Congress for more funding.
Consumer advocates have called for such a body for years, after tech companies were embroiled in scandals over data privacy, election interference and child safety. Recently, industry heavyweights including Microsoft President Brad Smith have chimed in with support for such an idea.
U.S. lawmakers have previously proposed creating a new privacy regulator within the FTC, and other countries boast data protection agencies and competition agencies with many technologists on staff. But Bennet’s proposed commission would have a broader purview, addressing issues from the impact of social media platforms on local news to the effect of tech platforms on mental health.
The commission would be tasked with creating rules to ensure large tech companies are transparent about their content moderation rules, as well as requirements for regular public risk assessments about the violent or hateful content circulating on their services. It would establish a “Code Council” made up of technologists and public interest experts to create technical standards and policies for the commission to consider, as well as a Research Office that would conduct internal research and coordinate with outside academics to study the companies.
Bennet said he was motivated by his personal experience with harms stemming from technology: disinformation he’s viewed in his work on the Senate Intelligence Committee and witnessing the effects that social media has had on his own children.
The proposal is a long shot in a Senate where Democrats have a fragile 50-50 majority — and Republicans have historically been wary of bills that would create new regulatory bodies. Though the legislation aims to address a wide range of harms, any government effort to force greater transparency of companies’ content moderation practices and algorithms could raise free speech concerns under the First Amendment.
Recently, the Department of Homeland Security’s launch of a “disinformation governance board” triggered a wave of criticism, largely from conservatives, arguing that it was a potential vehicle for government censorship. DHS clarified the entity will focus on foreign targets, including countering disinformation from Russia ahead of the midterm elections and human smugglers targeting migrants. And a group representing tech companies challenged President Donald Trump’s 2020 social media executive order, arguing it could “curtail and chill constitutionally protected speech.”
Harold Feld, the senior vice president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, proposed a new tech-focused commission in his 2019 book “The Case for the Digital Platform Act.” Such an agency could bring more independence to oversight of the tech companies, he told The Post, because it would include commissioners from both parties, much like the FTC or Federal Communications Commission.
“We don’t want regulation to be written based on just how p----d off the executive branch is,” he said. “We want some independence here that is able to look beyond any particular controversy and make sure the decision is in the public interest.”
Feld’s proposal has increasingly gained steam in tech policy circles. Former FCC chair Tom Wheeler (D) told The Post last month that Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter underscored the need for such an agency, to ensure “an acceptable behavioral code” across the tech industry. Feld said that there are safeguards in the bill around administrative processes that would provide additional checks, as well as court challenges that could be brought under the First Amendment.
The new agency would have limited resources compared with the companies, some of which have valuations of over a trillion dollars. Its initial budget would be $100 million in its first year, and then ramp up to $500 million over the course of five years.
Some critics have warned that such a body may be more susceptible to influence from powerful tech giants, which are among the largest lobbying spenders in Washington. Microsoft’s Smith said at an April privacy conference that such a commission would represent “a better future than asking a Congress or a legislature or a parliament to go on a piecemeal basis and change each and every law separately.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) at a March 2021 congressional hearing that such a new agency “could be very effective and positive for helping out.”
Welch has also been working on a similar proposal, and he circulated a memo to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in March 2021 proposing the creation of a separate agency overseeing tech.
“I’m drafting legislation that would finally create an agency to provide fair and comprehensive regulatory oversight of social media companies, so we can create online communities that are safer and better for our society,” he said in a statement.