Why We’re Still Waiting on Big Tech Reform in U.S.

YouIn the one year that Frances Haugen, whistleblower, claimed that Instagram and Facebook knowingly minimized the harm their products cause to young people and stoke division and weaken democracy. A flurry US legislative proposals have been made regarding regulation of social media and tech in general.

Yet, the legislation has not been approved despite numerous hearings and witness statements. Many of the proposed measures are being debated in relation to whether or not the government has the authority to regulate platforms’ handling of misinformation and harmful content. The main reason, technology experts say, is America’s strong free speech laws, which are unlike any in the world.

However, consumers are skeptical about Big Tech, and this may lead to the greatest changes in their minds.

“We’ve had what people are now calling a ‘techlash’ against this idea that social media is always a good thing and is part of the world getting better and better,” says Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor of public policy, communication, and information at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The Haugen effect

Leaked company research from Facebook revealed thousands upon thousands of pages detailing the operations of Facebook, now rebranded as Meta. This included how it used anger to increase engagement. These documents were first disclosed to Haugen by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, before being redacted and provided to Congress. The documents were also the basis of the Wall Street Journal’s “Facebook Files” series, which began publishing on Sept. 13, 2021.

The 12 months that have elapsed since then Journal published the first news story based on Haugen’s leaks and shook up the tech sector, there has been an unprecedented push to curb the industry’s power. Congress held a series of hearings on social media’s impact on users and society and advanced a number of bills aimed at cracking down on problems ranging from privacy to child online safety to competition.

Just last week, the White House released six principles for holding major U.S. tech companies accountable and said it was encouraged to see bipartisan interest in Congress to rein in some of the country’s biggest tech companies.

A Twitter whistleblower, Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, has also since come forward to allege that top Twitter executives endangered national security through “egregious deficiencies” in privacy and security. He began testifying before Congress on Tuesday—just as Haugen did last fall.

Meta made changes to its platforms over the past few months, such as adding parental controls for Instagram. But it has also, according to Haugen, “further dissolved” its election integrity efforts and “invested less and less” in responsible AI. Earlier this month, Meta reportedly disbanded its Responsible Innovation team, a group of engineers, ethicists, and others who were put in place to address potential downsides of the company’s products.

The need for reform is made more urgent by the fact that, despite distrusting social media companies, consumers haven’t really altered the way they use their platforms, says Libby Hemphill, an expert on social media and hate speech at the University of Michigan School of Information.

“Haugen’s revelations made consumers more skeptical, but they didn’t actually change consumer behavior. Not even for a minute,” she says.

Restructuring obstacles

Zuckerman says that the U.S. has especially strong protections for free speech—and social media platforms host millions and millions of posts, messages, news reports, and videos that qualify as “speech.” That makes these platforms difficult to regulate.

Zuckerman states that lawmakers who try to regulate against disinformation and misinformation raise questions about who has the right to dictate what can be said. “You’re either asking the government to have some control over what is allowable speech, or you’re taking a company and putting it in the very powerful position of becoming an arbiter of speech,” he says. “And neither of those is really comfortable within the U.S. constitutional tradition.”

According to Kenneth Joseph (an assistant professor of computer science engineering at the University of Buffalo), free speech laws can be leveraged by tech companies in order to achieve their goals. “That’s due to the vagueness of the concept of free speech, who gets it, and why they should get it,” he says.

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act, a high profile antitrust proposal that has been resisted by tech lobbyists, is only a matter of time away from being made law. It would stop dominant platforms, such as Google, Amazon, or Meta, from abusing their market power by giving preference to their own services instead of those offered by their competitors. The bill would prevent Google from having its own travel recommendations at the top in search results.

Zuckerman says AICO has gained the most ground of any of the tech reform bills because it’s less politically charged and focuses instead on fair business practices.

“In the U.S., [business] is a place where we tend to be a lot more comfortable with the idea that we might intervene,” he says. “[AICO] isn’t just going straight after questions of speech.”

But it’s also difficult to separate antitrust reform from other related concerns in the tech world, says Hemphill. “It’s hard to disentangle these issues in a way where you could pull various policy levers that would have an impact on one area without having too much negative impact on another,” she says.

The U.S. dilemma

AICO might not become law even with bipartisan support. Some advocates have voiced concern that if the bill doesn’t pass ahead of the midterms, or at least before control of the House potentially changes, it could die. Similar bills are being considered to regulate technology companies.

“We tend to have this incredibly narrow window, usually the first two years of a presidential term, where we expect that progress can happen,” Zuckerman says.

This doesn’t bode well for government-led tech reform in the U.S.

The European Union, another tech hub is different. “There’s a decent chance that Washington is once again going to grind to a halt. But that doesn’t mean that governments aren’t trying to find ways to make social media companies behave better,” he says.

Zuckerman claims that landmark EU legislation is near approval. This could make it difficult for major tech companies, he says. It will impose higher transparency standards around content moderation and would bring down large tech firms. ”The principles behind these proposals are really promising,” he says.

Big Tech reform could also turn out to be a double-edged sword, says Josephs, noting that while social media has harmed society in many ways, it’s also been beneficial.

“We can think about regulation writ large and say that’s probably, on balance, a good thing,” he says. “But depending on who’s in power and what those regulations ultimately say, there can be a downside to it as well.”

Regardless of what happens in the U.S., Zuckerman says, Haugen’s revelations have helped to crystallize a conversation about the harms of social media that started in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, when misinformation ran rampant, he says: “The response has basically been to say, maybe it’s time to be really skeptical about these platforms.”

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