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Scoop: 20 ways Democrats could crack down on Big Tech

Mark Warner talks to reporters
Virginia's Mark Warner is the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

In a policy paper obtained by Axios, Sen. Mark Warner's office laid out 20 different paths to address problems posed by Big Tech platforms — ranging from putting a price on individual users' data to funding media literacy programs.

Why it matters: The paper — prepared by Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner’s staff and circulated in tech policy circles in recent weeks — is a window t0 the options available to U.S. policymakers concerned about disinformation and privacy. Enacting any of these plans is a long shot in the near-term, but a shift in party control of Congress come November could give them more momentum.

The policy paper divides the different proposals along three lines:

  1. Combating disinformation,
  2. Protecting user privacy,
  3. Promoting competition in the tech space.

The details: Options listed in the paper run the gamut from those that are relatively small lifts to more sweeping policy options.

  • New resources and roles for government: The paper raises the prospect of new federal funding for media literacy programs that could help consumers sort through the information on online platforms. It also describes the military and intelligence communities as not adequately prepared for foreign information operations and includes various measures for bolstering their capabilities.
  • New rules for platforms: The paper considers requiring web platforms to label bot accounts or do more to identify authentic accounts, with the threat of sanction by the Federal Trade Commission if they fail to do so.
  • But it also goes further: One idea would be to make platforms legally liable for claims like "defamation, invasion of privacy, false light, and public disclosure of private facts" if they fail to take down doctored video and audio or so-called deep fakes (or fabricated footage), if a victim secured a necessary judgement regarding the sharing of that content.
  • Another would hang an "essential facility" label on certain widely-used tech products, like Google Maps. That would require them to offer access on "fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory" terms and not engage in "self-dealing or preferential conduct."
  • New powers for consumers: Warner’s staffers raised the idea of a law mimicking Europe’s GDPR privacy rules in the United States or offering a more limited right for users to consent to the use of their data.
  • The report also suggested that, to increase visibility into competition, platforms could put a monetary value on an individual user’s data.

The paper acknowledges that these policy ideas come with plenty of questions: “In many cases there may be flaws in each proposal that may undercut the goal the proposal is trying achieve, or pose a political problem that simply can’t be overcome at this time."

What they’re saying: “The size and reach of these platforms demand that we ensure proper oversight, transparency and effective management of technologies that in large measure undergird our social lives, our economy, and our politics,” the paper says. “The hope is that the ideas enclosed here stir the pot and spark a wider discussion — among policymakers, stakeholders, and civil society groups — on the appropriate trajectory of technology policy in the coming years.”

What they’re not saying: The list doesn’t include the possibility of breaking up any of the large tech platforms — as some activists have called for — or establishing a new federal regulator for digital issues.

The big picture: Warner, who made his fortune in telecommunications before running for office, has been a prominent critic of major social media platforms from his perch as top Democrat overseeing the intelligence committee’s investigation of Russian election interference. Other members of Congress say they share some of his concerns about disinformation, privacy and competition.

Reality check: Even with vocal support, major tech policy proposals often fail to reach the velocity they need to actually be enacted. A Democratic wave in November could put more momentum behind these ideas — but for now they remain just that.

Read the whole paper:

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