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Senators target social media giants with data portability bill

Senator Mark Warner and Senator Richard Blumenthal
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., left, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on Capitol Hill in July. Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call.

Three prominent tech critics in the Senate will introduce new legislation Tuesday requiring social media giants to give consumers ways to move their personal data to another platform at any time.

Why it matters: The bill's goal is to loosen the grip social media platforms have on their consumers through the long-term collection and storage of their data. Allowing users to export their data — like friends lists and profile information — could give rival platforms a chance at competing with Facebook or Google's YouTube.

Details: Democratic Sens. Mark Warner (Va.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), along with Republican Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) are introducing the Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act.

  • In addition to data portability, the bill would also require communications platforms with over 100 million U.S. monthly active users to make their services interoperable.
  • It would require platforms to give users the option to designate a trusted third-party service to manage their privacy, content, online interactions and account settings.

The big picture: The bill is the next installment of legislation from Warner and Hawley aiming to force dominant social media platforms to be more transparent with users about what they are giving up when logging on to the service.

  • In June, the senators partnered to introduce the DASHBOARD Act, which would require a company like Facebook to disclose how it monetizes user data and how much that data is worth.
  • They also introduced the "Do Not Track Act" to allow users to opt out of certain types of non-essential data collection, similar to the FTC's "Do Not Call "list.

Flashback: In the early days of the wireless industry, consumers avoided switching to a different wireless carrier because doing so required them to give up their phone number.

  • In 1996, Congress mandated "number portability," requiring carriers to allow consumers to keep their phone numbers when switching to a new carrier.
  • It is widely credited with promoting more competition between phone companies and allowing new entrants to compete on price and plan options.

What they're saying: Warner, who spent a large part of his career in the wireless industry, believes data is similar to phone numbers in making consumers feel locked in to a single platform.

  • With portability, "startups will be able to compete on equal term with the big behemoths," he said in a statement.
  • “Your data is your property. Period," Hawley said in a statement. "Consumers should have the flexibility to choose new online platforms without artificial barriers to entry."

Between the lines: Tech companies have long argued they are different from the telecom giants and therefore shouldn't be regulated the same way. But policymakers are increasingly seeing parallels between the dominant telecom providers and the major tech platforms, and are finding similar ways to try to rein them in.