ISPs Get Hill Help in Push to Regulate Edge

WHY THIS MATTERS: Sen. Mark Warner, a potential key player in a Democratic senate, is losing patience with edge providers.

Internet service providers calling for regulators and legislators to put edge providers in their sights have gotten a boost from Sen. Mark Warner.

Warner, a Virginia Democrat and a former telecom executive himself, told The Atlantic that while he was still tech-friendly, he was also kind of done with the arrogance of big edge providers.

That could have an impact on policy, particularly if the Democrats manage to regain control of the Senate. Warner is vice chairman (a more collegial form of ranking member) on the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, which he could chair in a Democraticled chamber.

Warner told The Atlantic that the message Washington was getting from the edge was: “You policy guys just shouldn’t worry. We’re a lot smarter. We’ll take care of things.” And he didn’t like it.

Wary of ‘Dark Underbelly’

He even took a gentle swipe at the previous administration. He said there was an infatuation for Silicon Valley in the White House of President Barack Obama — he did not single out Google, but he could have — but even back then, Warner said he was starting to see what he called the tech sector’s “dark underbelly.”

He says that translated to an “unedited” public square that often allowed extremist voices to connect with other extremists in a way that multiplied their volume, far beyond what they actually represent.

“I saw the proliferation of bots manipulating political conversation,” Warner told the magazine. “And then there was also a point when I got pretty pissed off. I was seeing evidence of foreign intervention on the social media platforms. I’ve met with [Facebook chairman and CEO] Mark Zuckerberg a half-dozen times, decent enough guy, but there was such an arrogant kind of response to complaints.”

Warner signaled that one thing he understood was that edge providers’ exemption from liability for third-party postings could go away. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which exempts social media platforms from such liability, may no longer make sense now that half of the country gets its news from Facebook, he added.

And Warner doesn’t buy social media arguments that changing that exemption will lead to the “complete destruction of the public square.”

“How far should we go down the path of regulating these spaces?” Warner asked. “I think you can have that debate without seriously undermining the public square. And I think the companies are starting to realize it is in their self-interest to be part of this discussion.”

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently said the social media platform plans to start notifying users — when possible — whether they are interacting with a human or a bot.

Dorsey’s comments came in a hearing in the Intelligence Committee under prodding from Warner.

Warner asked Dorsey whether users should have a right to know whether they were interacting with a human or a bot. Dorsey said yes, that users have the right to more context to the extent that Twitter can identify bots from humans, which is getting increasingly more difficult.

Dorsey said Twitter had recently concluded it would be useful information for their users and the company “was going to do something along those lines.”

Pressure Building Up

The pressure on the edge ramped up even more two weeks ago, after revelations Google exposed the data of a half-million users to third parties and failed to notify the public, apparently in part for fear of replacing Facebook as the current social media target.

One Democratic senator, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, has requested a formal investigation of Google.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.