Battle to rein in Fb, Twitter and TikTok to warmth up in 2021

The takeover of Instagram and WhatsApp by Facebook is being questioned by federal and state authorities.

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New York Attorney General Letitia James stood behind a podium earlier this month and delivered a blunt message to Facebook.

“No company should have so much uncontrolled power over our personal information and social interactions,” said James as she announced a massive lawsuit alleging the social media giant engaged in illegal anti-competitive behavior for its own sake Maintain dominance in social networks. Forty-seven other attorneys general, representing most of the country, participated in the December 11 complaint.

For Facebook, the day only got worse. The Federal Trade Commission, the country’s top antitrust agency, filed a similar lawsuit against the company.

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The lawsuits mark an important turning point in efforts by the federal and state governments to curb Facebook’s expansion power. By looking for competitors such as the photo service Instagram and the messaging service WhatsApp, the company is suppressing competition, according to critics. Even some Facebook insiders, like co-founder Chris Hughes, want the social network to spin off WhatsApp and Instagram. The FTC and state lawsuits set the stage for such a separation, although legal experts say it is an unlikely outcome. The social network has argued that a breakup won’t address important issues like protecting user privacy.

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An activist in Europe wears a mask with the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg.

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Facebook isn’t the only goal lawmakers and regulators focus on on social networks. The Irish Data Protection Commission fined Twitter earlier this year for allegedly violating a European data protection law. Last week, the European Union presented new proposals to encourage competition and oblige online platforms to monitor inappropriate content more aggressively. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, heard criticism from lawmakers who want to amend a federal law protecting online platforms from liability for user content. The Trump administration threatened to ban Chinese-owned TikTok over national security concerns.

“The problem is, you have a handful of powerful companies that control the economy, control public discourse, and control all of our data,” said Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and a former senior advisor to Federal Communications Commission.

The looming litigation is likely a forerunner of technical regulation in 2021. President-elect Joe Biden has raised concerns about misinformation on social networks, telling the New York Times earlier this year that he is not a huge fan of Facebook or Zuckerberg. This could mean putting new proposals to Congress to regulate the technology, although it is unclear whether new laws could be passed.

Nick Clegg, head of global affairs at Facebook, said in a statement in the Washington Post that it was “inevitable” that Facebook and other tech companies will be more regulated in the future. However, he warned US lawmakers against obstructing the flow of online data and building digital barriers, as is the case in China.

“The Biden government could now help protect the remnants of the global internet from the dark cloud of digital protectionism and keep it open, accessible and safe for future generations,” Clegg said in the statement.


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Promote competition

Legislators have signaled they are looking at the power of big tech companies. In July, Zuckerberg testified with Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, and Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, in a marathon hearing before the House’s Antitrust Subcommittee.

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Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, testified before the company’s Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law subcommittee in July.

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The Democratic leadership of the subcommittee released a 449-page report in October accusing Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook of abusing monopoly power. This dominance, the report says, has harmed consumers. “In the absence of competition, Facebook’s quality has deteriorated over time, leading to poorer privacy protection for its users and a dramatic increase in misinformation on its platform,” the report said.

The report also provided insight into the solutions lawmakers are looking for to encourage more competition.

The division of companies is among the proposals, as is the discontinuation of major tech mergers, the prevention of preferential treatment of their own products by tech giants, and the obligation of companies to allow users to transfer their data to other online platforms. The subcommittee also recommended strengthening antitrust laws and their enforcement.

Although Facebook denies it competes unfairly, the social network has called for more internet regulation regarding harmful content, voting integrity, and privacy. The company also supports the idea of ​​making it easier to move your data to other services.

Take action against harmful content

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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in November.

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Democrats and Republicans have proposed changes to a federal law called Section 230 that protects online platforms from liability for content posted by their users. Even Twitter and Facebook agreed that the 1996 law needs to be updated.

“Section 230 enabled the development of all major Internet services and ensured that important values ​​such as freedom of expression and openness are part of the operation of platforms. A change is an important decision,” Zuckerberg told legislators in October during a hearing. “However, I believe Congress should update the law to ensure that it works as intended.”

In another hearing in November, Dorsey told lawmakers Congress should consider “additions to Section 230, Industry Best Practices for Self-Regulation or a New Legal Framework”. Twitter had no additional comment.

Democrats and Republicans have different motives for changing Section 230. Democrats say social networks are not doing enough to combat social media misinformation, while Republicans say their views are being censored. (The companies deny these allegations.) Some politicians, including Biden, say the entire law should be repealed.

Proposed changes to Section 230 include allowing Americans to sue tech companies for censoring political speeches and remove legal protections if a company’s algorithm reinforces posts of terrorism. Mark Lemley, a professor at Stanford Law School who runs a law, science, and technology program at the university, is skeptical. Democrats and Republicans will agree on legislative changes because their goals are different.

“In a divided government, they are unlikely to agree on a replacement bill despite their surface agreement,” Lemley said. “While it is possible for them to just waive immunity and do nothing else, I think that is unlikely.”

Protection of privacy and security

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Social networks are under more pressure to protect user privacy.

Angela Lang / CNET

Another big problem for social networks is how to better protect user privacy and security. Facebook has been under scrutiny since 2018 for failing to protect user privacy after British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica gathered data from up to 87 million users without their knowledge.

Europe has a law to protect user data and privacy known as the General Data Protection Regulation. Enforcing the law, however, has been a challenge. This month, Twitter was fined € 450,000 by the Irish Data Protection Commission for failing to properly notify regulators of a data breach reported in 2019.

Although some states have their own data protection laws, the US doesn’t have a national data protection law like the GDPR. The conversation about this will likely continue in 2021. Whether the legislature can reach an agreement is another challenge.

TikTok was the target of the Trump administration as it is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance. In 2021, Trump signed two executive orders, citing concerns that the Chinese government could use the app to spy on Americans. TikTok says it would not give Beijing any US information that is not stored in China.

TikTok, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, has been working on a deal with Oracle and Walmart to allay US government concerns. However, it is unclear whether the deal will be finalized before Biden takes office. Biden has said he views TikTok as “seriously worrying” but has not said whether he intends to reverse Trump’s executive orders.

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