When I commented at the opening of my phone call with Senator Amy Klobuchar that things were “getting interesting” in the area of ​​technology regulation, she responded as if I had just uttered a euphemism the size of a company. Facebook server farm.

The testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appears to have changed the policy of technology regulation within Congress, causing a fusion of ideas on what Congress should – or can-to do. Haugen shared documents with the SEC she indicted showed, among other things, that Facebook knew its Instagram service was harming the well-being of teenage girls, but did little to stop it. (Facebook disputes this assessment.)

Reigning in Big Tech has become the rare problem in the capital which is not quickly derailed by spasms of hyper-partisanship. Protecting children also has this effect, making Haugen’s revelations even more powerful. Tech regulation also resonates with voters, and yet congressional hearings have become less of cheeky sentence exchanges with tech executives, and more of researching questions about the inner workings of tech’s worst habits and lawsuits. the business models that underpin them.

Antitrust reform is one of many major issues with Big Tech in Klobuchar’s area as chairman of the Senate Justice System Antitrust Subcommittee, along with data privacy, child safety and law reform. section 230. I spoke to him about the consequences of Haugen’s whistleblower, the tech lobbyists, the problem with regulating algorithms, the government’s inaction on privacy and its major new antitrust bill (co-sponsored with Senator Chuck Grassley), the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which allows state and federal agencies to sue large market operators like Amazon for promoting their own products.

(The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Fast Company: I watched Frances Haugen’s hearing, and it almost felt like a turning point in the tech regulatory effort, but this week I’m wondering how it all ended up? What will really be the takeaways in the Capital?

Senator Amy Klobuchar: I think one of the things that has changed over the past week, even beyond Facebook, is that for so long my colleagues have heard from tech companies and their legions of lobbyists, “Trust us, we have this ”, and it’s so hard to lift the hood and figure that out. I believe the main obstacle has been the ease of doing nothing when there are lobbyists and money being thrown away versus the difficulty of having to go up against all the tech companies that tell you you’re stupid or that you are misinformed.

I think the switch has flipped, and partly because it’s about kids’ issues and partly because the momentum has really grown over the last year for more action and it there were many signs to this – bipartisan support for Lina Khan [who Congress confirmed to lead the Federal Trade Commission], and the audience we just had for [Jonathan] Kantor [Biden’s progressive nominee to lead the FTC’s antitrust division].

The fact [is] that usually things go so far along partisan lines. And they weren’t in the hearings that we had in the bench [committee] on things like big data and app stores, where you could barely tell the difference in about 90% of the questions between whether someone was a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. And the public [has] got it after watching their children become more and more addicted to these platforms during the pandemic.

It appears that much of the discussion has turned to whether or not the government should or can get into regulating algorithms that harm consumers. Why can’t the government pass a privacy bill that places limits on the personal data that can be fed into algorithms in the first place?

[Washington Democratic Senator] Maria Cantwell has a very good bill [The Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act (COPRA)], which was unveiled in 2019 [and cosponsored by Klobuchar]. Obtaining bipartite privacy legislation has been negotiated in recent years in the Trade Committee. I think it would make a major difference with these platforms, given that we know when Apple asked its customers, “Do you want to choose whether to share your data or not?” »75% said no to sharing their data.

It is clearly time to do something about algorithms. They have so much influence on so many aspects of our lives. As we have seen in the documents Ms Haugen made public, they can cause real damage. So we need transparency. As we get that transparency and see other work, I think we pretty much know this is the most polarized content. [they’re amplifying]. It is amplifying bad speech that would not be protected by other means. It amplifies misinformation or hate speech. . . . It is not an easy thing to achieve, but the first element must be to make the algorithms transparent.

These are therefore the elements of confidentiality and algorithmic transparency. How do your antitrust reform efforts fit into the larger solution?

It might not be immediately obvious why this might be useful, but it’s actually a bigger, structural, long-term change because you need regulation and competition. What the competition would do well, especially while the regulation is in place, is [create] new platforms that have more bells and whistles to protect kids, stop misinformation, and stop some of the privacy breaches that are happening. This creates another product that you can access, and that’s what these dominant platforms are sorely lacking in so many areas.

Disputed markets

Your new bill to regulate Amazon and other markets appears to allow federal and state authorities to sue big tech companies. Why does he not allow ordinary citizens to sue big tech companies?

The thing that I think is sometimes forgotten is when the FTC and the DOJ [Department of Justice] bringing these lawsuits, they can make a lot of money for the government, and so they often pay themselves. So I think focusing on these agencies is a good thing. I would have been open to a private right of action, but this is how the bill was negotiated, and I still think it is strong enough.

Did you work with Lina Khan and others at the FTC when you prepared this bill to discuss what they would need in terms of enforcement?

I have discussed concepts with her before during her hearing and on her own initiative, but we did not work hand in hand with the administration or the words. These were negotiations between Senator Grassley and myself. It was . . . a long quest I have had over the past month to get a number of Senators [to sign on]. I thought it was really important to have the usual people like [Senator Richard] Blumenthal (D-CT) lit, but we also have [Senators] Mark Warner (D-VA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL). So it just shows that the support for it, to do something against the competition in technology, is widening.

They’re reputable co-sponsors, but I noticed your Senate Antitrust Member is not one of them. Do you have any idea why Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) did not sign?

He’s always had problems with the FTC. Nothing to do with the FTC, sometimes he’s not a big fan of it. So we will continue to work on it and talk to him about the various problems he has. He was very interested in the matter. He was the one who held the hearing on self-preference and exclusivity, and it was a very good hearing last year. So you know, even though he may not be on this bill, he has been a leader on this file.

When these new tech antitrust lawsuits arise, courts seem to focus on the narrow question of whether a business practice or merger immediately benefits consumers, instead of taking a more nuanced look at what it might do for competition between companies. market players. Will this continue to be an obstacle to victory in these antitrust cases?

[You] need to clarify the laws, because when Senator Sherman and Mr. Clayton drafted their bills [the 1890 Sherman Act and the 1914 Clayton Antitrust Act] many years ago the internet did not exist. There was neither Amazon, nor Facebook, nor Google, nor Apple. And the laws have been interpreted very strictly by conservative judges, making it very difficult to keep up with the times of our time.

I believe this bill echoes the spirit of the antitrust law of hundreds of years ago, and it is true to that spirit. I really believe that when you have such dominant platforms, and in the words of Mark Zuckerberg they would rather buy than compete, you are not allowing the private market to develop the bells and whistles. We’ll never know if Instagram could have done different things on its own when it comes to misinformation or child protection. We’ll never know because Facebook bought them, and there are plenty of examples like this across all platforms.

So part of the solution, in addition to regulation, must be to unleash the power of capitalism to allow competitors to develop different products that the public will gravitate towards. Part of [antitrust] is the price, but it’s not always the price. These are also other things that have positive benefits for consumers, such as protecting their privacy, such as the absence of misinformation, such as the absence of nasty stuff that their children see.


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