Twitter. Facebook. Google. These platforms drive the many interactions that, whether garnering research or providing social outlets, we have on a daily basis. They exert massive amounts of influence on our lives. Whether it’s a video on Facebook, a picture on Twitter, or a story from Google, these platforms grab our attention and spark discussion like nothing ever has before. While convenience and entertainment are the commodities we get from these platforms, the tradeoff is privacy, and lawmakers are now starting to talk about it.
What happened on the hill?
Due to the Russian interference in the 2016 election, lawmakers wanted to gain clarity on how much these companies knew about the interference on their platforms as well as how they are going to take steps in the future to prevent it. On September 5th, top executives from Twitter, Facebook, and Google were invited to speak with the Senate Intelligence Committee. After that meeting, Twitter specifically had a meeting with the House Energy and Commerce Committee about concerns over privacy, influence on elections by foreign powers, and disinformation.
On the day of the hearings, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, and Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, made their way to the meeting. Executives from Google did not attend, leaving an empty seat at the table and sending an adverse message to lawmakers.
As the conversations and questioning began that day with the Senate Intelligence Committee, it was clear the group was approaching this inquiry in an affable way. The major takeaway from the meeting was how Twitter and Facebook were already consciously aware of their shortcomings on major privacy issues. The two major platforms expressed their willingness to work with lawmakers on the issues of disinformation and the effects of foreign influence.
The House meeting had a particularly contrasting tone. Dorsey was now on his own in front of a committee that needed answers. Lawmakers were quick to question the Twitter CEO about a topic that is all too familiar: disinformation and bias. Many of the claims made revolved around platforms, such as Twitter, having strategic biases that would display information on their sites that leaned toward one side of the isle. Committee Chairman Greg Walden, a Republican of Oregon, asked Dorsey on how certain algorithms could have a bias for censoring conservative views on the platform. This viewpoint was expressed by President Trump when he tweeted about conservative views being “shadow banned” on Twitter. Shadow banning hides the user’s comments from other users without the individual knowing that his or her comment has been concealed. This is used in order to silence those perpetuating hate speech without having to ban them.
Just days after this hearing, Twitter made a seemingly decisive stand on hate speech in line with the other tech platforms had done previously. Alex Jones, the alt-right personality and host of “Info Wars” was permanently banned from Twitter after his violation of the abusive behavior policy. Dorsey was ridiculed about his lack of a move to ban Jones after many of the other tech giants, including Facebook, Apple, and Youtube, removed his content in early August. Dorsey stood by the company policy and said the posts at the time were in line with the statutes in place. With this banning of Jones from Twitter, lawmakers could take it as efforts on behalf of Twitter, as well as other tech giants, to try and silence conservative views from their platforms.
Why does this matter?
Recently public perception of social media and tech companies has drastically shifted. With recent scandals like Facebook’s with Cambridge Analytica and the privacy regulations of the GDPR, the climate and perception of social media and its role in the lives of Americans has quickly shifted. The automatic response to the unrest and eeriness of the American people is the enactment of policy at the federal level, hence, where we stand today.
What is monumental about these discussions is how it affects what has been known as the “golden law of the internet”. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was passed in 1996. This act of legislation says that, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”. What this boils down to is that Twitter, Facebook, and Google are not responsible for what is posted on their sites, and aren’t obligated to regulate any user’s free speech. This section of the act is the most important tool for protecting free speech and innovation on the internet, but with that comes the adverse effects that we have been seeing.
With new legislation, a ripple effect may take place, pushing consumers, businesses, and shareholders in all new directions. Facebook and Twitter seem to be on board with these changing times, but with the absence of Google, it seems they might have a different sentiment. Could they have been a no show in order to send a message to lawmakers that they are not behind the regulation of their platform? Could this move have harsher restrictions on Google when it comes time for policy to be drafted and passed? Only time will tell on the stance that Google has in this ongoing discussion and how their actions will ultimately affect them.
As for consumers, these talks could completely change the user experience we have become accustomed to. Falling in line with potential legislation guidelines could bring some new etiquette rules to the platform, limiting the many speech liberties that consumers had in the past. This move could potentially hinder the growth of these platforms, and maybe even shrink the massive user bases the platforms have garnered. Will this legislation dissuade consumers from using any sort of app/platform throughout the social media industry? It will be fascinating to see how consumers react, especially those that make a living off of their media presence, as well as consumers that have already unified social media as a part of daily life.
Other stakeholders may be affected by this move as well. These partnerships in legislation between the government and the social platforms could affect the unrestricted growth that the tech giants have benefitted off of for so long, ultimately shrinking or stunting the returns stakeholders have come to expect. This legislation could have massive impacts on future startup tech firms as well, consequently thwarting the potential quantum leap in prices when these startups decide to go public.
While Twitter and Facebook expressed their sentiments about being interested in talking about forming legislation around social media privacy, no one truly knows how invasive this policy will be, or how it will affect the consumer use. What we know going forward is that talks and policy will be changing day by day and who knows if a search, post, or tweet could drastically change the course of social media forever.