Sen. Warner on 'Net Governance: Status Quo Won't Cut It

Warner (D-Va.) said it is high time Washington policymakers lost the rose-colored glasses when it comes to social media and Big Tech and adopted a "more pessimistic, or at least realistic," view of technology and, specifically, the internet.

That sober warning from the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee was delivered at a PEN America symposium on "Digital Information and the Threat to Democracy" in Washington Tuesday (Sept. 17) hosted by Federal Election Commission chair Ellen Weintraub, according to a prepared test of the senator's keynote speech.

Warner said that view might seem surprising from the "tech guy" in Washington--he is a former tech exec and concedes he once shared the consensus view that those technologies "and the companies that built them" were "largely positive forces."

Related: Sens. Warner, Hawley Team on Social Media Dashboard

But in the wake of abuses by actors foreign and domestic, he signaled, "now, we see how the misuse of technology threatens our democratic systems, our economy, and our national security."

The senator, who pointed out the that he has spent the last two-and-a half-years on the (generally) bipartisan investigation into Russian election meddling, said that attack "awakened a lot of people to that truth," a truth that he suggested does not reflect well on Big Tech.

"Western companies who help authoritarian regimes build censored apps or walled-garden versions of the internet [Google in particular has been the target of such criticisms] are just as big a threat to a free and open internet as government actors," he said.

The senator suggested it was a problem of our own making, stemming from that historically hands-off, rosy, view of Big Tech.

"In many ways, we brought this on ourselves," he says. "We live in a society that is becoming more and more dependent on products and networks, yet the level of security and integrity we accept in commercial technology products is shockingly low. And as a society we continue to have entirely too much trust in the technologies our adversaries have begun to exploit. For years, we told the world that any tweaks around the edges would undermine innovation, or create a slippery slope to a dystopian internet."

Warner suggested it might be time to consider a regulatory body like the FCC for digital media.

"For over two decades…the U.S. has maintained – and promoted – a completely hands-off approach," he said. "We need to realize that the status quo just isn’t working. For over two decades…the U.S. has maintained – and promoted – a completely hands-off approach. And today, the large technology platforms are, in effect, the only major part of our economy without a sector-specific regulator."

He also took a shot at Sec. 230, the portion of communications law that exempts edge providers from liability for content posted on their sites by third parties. "We’ve seen how laws originally intended to promote good behavior – like Section 230…which was meant to incentivize effective moderation – are used by the largest platforms as a shield to do nothing."

He specifically called out Facebook. "Just last year, Americans were defrauded to the tune of $360 million by identity thieves posing as military service members. As the New York Times reported, these aren’t sophisticated state actors using fancy masking tools. These are pretty basic scammers in internet cafes in West Africa. And the truth is, Facebook faces no meaningful pressure to do anything about it. Neither the defrauded Americans nor the impersonated service members can sue Facebook because of Section 230."

Warner said Sec. 230 was created for an era of more "vibrant" web competition, but that now, "Facebook faces no competitive pressure."

Currently Congress and the Trump Administration are investigating just how much competition there is and isn't to Edge behemoths including Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter.

Warner said it is time to stop trying to convince ourselves and the international community that our internet governance regime is "working fine" and take steps to fix it.

That should start with more transparency about whether info is coming from a human being or a bot, he said, taking the opportunity to put in a good word for his Honest Ads Act.

Specifically, the bill would amend the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) to include paid internet and digital ads in the definition of electioneering communications, which would trigger enhanced disclosure.

Related: FEC Proposes New Political Ad Disclosure Rules

The senator also said companies should have to identify inauthentic accounts. "[I]f someone says they’re Mark from Alexandria but they’re actually Boris in St. Petersburg…I think folks have a right to know that." He also said there should be no Sec. 230 shield for sites that "propagate truly defamatory content," again putting the focus on Facebook.

"We saw Facebook caught flat-footed in the face of rudimentary audio-visual manipulation of a video of [House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi," he said. "This does not bode well for how social media is going to deal with more sophisticated manipulation techniques like DeepFakes."

Related: Facebook Faces Hill Ire Over Political Ad Transparency

Warner echoed what is becoming a common theme in Washington these days on both sides of the aisle when it comes to the biggest of Big Tech: "It’s my hope that these companies will collaborate and be part of the solution, but one thing is clear: The wild west days of social media are coming to an end."

John Eggerton

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.