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Q&A: Sen. Michael Bennet on AI, TikTok and more

May 2, 2023
Senator Michael Bennet asks a question at a hearing, gesturing with his hand.

Bennet speaks at a hearing in December 2022. Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sen. Michael Bennet raised three daughters at the advent of social media, used to work in schools and says he has a keen understanding of the impact of tech on young people. Ashley sat down with the Colorado Democrat in the Capitol this week to discuss all this and more.

Below is an excerpt from the conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In March, you wrote to the CEOs of OpenAI, Google, Meta, Snap and Microsoft asking how they are considering the impact of AI advancements on children and teens. What has been the response?

I just got some replies back, and the responses run the gamut from "We're thinking this through, we're establishing some bureaucratic ways to address these issues..." though I would not say in a very convincing way. Then there are others that are saying "We actually need some outside eyes on what we're doing."

Why do you think it's especially important to consider younger users of social media in this conversation about AI?

There's a mental health epidemic going on among young people, and I'm not saying it's all social media, but the early evidence isn't great from that point of view.... We have run the experiment of social media algorithms without understanding what it's done to our kids.

  • And that's just the algorithms as they have existed.... Now we're in a world of machine learning, artificial intelligence, generative AI, where I am completely unpersuaded the industry itself has any idea what the effect on our kids is going to be.

You've said a Digital Platform Commission is necessary, comparing it to agencies like the FDA or CFPB. Why is this needed, and how would it work?

I am sure that when the FCC and FDA were created, there were people who said you don't need to do that. Typically, I'm not someone who wants more bureaucratic agencies.

  • But having raised three daughters at the dawn of social media and having been a school superintendent and a member of the Intelligence Committee when our country was hacked by our adversaries, I have reached the conclusion that we need to have somebody here that can negotiate on behalf of the American people.
  • [The FTC and DOJ] can't do the type of work the FDA does. I don't mean that to be negative. The people who sell pharmaceuticals in this country have benefited, and consumers have benefited, from having a regulatory agency with the expertise to be able to do this.
  • In my proposal, there would be a council of people from inside and outside the industry, experts who could deal with these questions in real time. [Bennet said his office is preparing to reintroduce the bill and speaking with colleagues to gather support.]
  • We just have to keep talking about it.... I'm not an expert in anything, including my own longevity, but we will all be dead before Congress does a good job of regulating this stuff.

Members of Congress are throwing a lot of ideas at the wall when it comes to AI with no real focus. Where do we go from here?

I don't think freaking out is the appropriate response, and there's good and bad in all of this. [Bennet cited his newly introduced ASSESS AI Act, which would review existing AI policies across the federal government and make recommendations for protecting civil rights, privacy and due process.]

  • If Congress had tried to be the FCC, we'd still be talking on Dixie cups with pieces of string between us. Instead, we'd be better off having a thoughtful regulatory agency ... and not to freak out, but to make sure America can lead.

What's next for TikTok and the RESTRICT Act? (Bennet is a co-sponsor of RESTRICT and previously wrote a letter urging Apple and Google to ban TikTok from their app stores.)

I think we're having a debate in this country about whether or not we are well-served by having this particular platform owned by ByteDance and answerable to the Chinese Communist Party.

  • My hope is at the end of the day we're going to figure out some way for the enterprises and people on there to migrate to other places where we're not subject to the whims of the CCP.
  • I just don't know what form that is ultimately going to take here in terms of legislation.

Is it politically dangerous for Democrats to ban TikTok under President Biden with an upcoming election?

If we pass the RESTRICT Act, and there is a coherent way of us approaching the question, not just of TikTok but other potential threats as well, and the American people can begin to understand what it is we're seeing on the Intelligence Committee and other committees...

  • ... we can all reach a rational conclusion about how we as citizens of this democracy want to move forward together. We will be able to do what's necessary, and the American people will support it.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Bennet sent a letter urging Apple and Google to ban TikTok from their app stores (but he did not introduce legislation for such a ban).

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