In a blog post from early 2017, I argued that we were “witnessing the passing of the Internet’s wilderness frontier days,” and that the “vast, untamed Wild West” of online life wouldn’t be free of government regulation for much longer. In the wake of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony this past week, that time seems to have finally arrived, as “demands for censorship, control, security, and certainty have replaced an ecosystem birthed, as all frontiers are, in an unbounded individualism.” While the arrival of this inflection point was probably inevitable, it was almost certainly accelerated by a number of trends that converged in the aftermath of the 2016 election.
First, in the last months of 2016, it became increasingly clear that the emerging narrative of social media firms acting as unwitting conduits for Russian meddling in the presidential election wasn’t just a flash-in the-pan news story. It had staying power, and would likely be with us for some time. President Trump himself would make sure of that, endlessly retaliating against the “fake news media” for its reporting on Russian interference in the election and potential links with the campaign. The media would respond with a persistent barrage of cable news chyrons and pundit commentary, perpetuating a cycle that continues to this day.
Second, over the past few years the tech industry has been the subject of increasingly negative news coverage. From fights over encryption and revelations of workplace harassment to criticisms of perceived monopoly power and heightened awareness over the lack of diversity, Silicon Valley’s reputation has taken a beating. The swirling news frenzy of fake news, social media firms, and Russian election interference would add yet another attack angle for the tech industry’s many critics. The public honeymoon the industry had experienced in the heyday of the Obama Administration was quickly coming to a close.
All these converging issue streams have been subtly reinforcing the public perception that there is a growing “Big Tech” menace. Concerns over the industry’s power and influence are pervasive given that it implicates practically almost every conceivable area of life, from our economic transactions and social exchanges to the very institutions that safeguard democracy. There is literally nothing the tech industry does not touch or disrupt.
Sitting at the center of all these trends has been Facebook—a node in the growing network of Trump-Russia connections that have emerged over the past eighteen months. The tech industry’s shadow seems to loom large over the national affair that has consumed daily news media reports since before the new administration even took office. Even new Russiagate-related headlines that don’t directly implicate Facebook (James Comey’s firing, ongoing developments in the Mueller investigation, etc.) inevitably evoke incidental association.
Given this environment, the political furor on display amidst the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica affair makes perfect sense. As I recently noted in The National Review:
Since the beginning, Facebook has been a major player in this ongoing drama [Russiagate], increasingly melded together with the rest of cast of characters. Primed by an environment of news-headline echo chambers, all that was needed was a spark to light the company’s reputation ablaze. The revelation of Cambridge Analytica’s unsanctioned collection of Facebook users’ data did the trick. Indeed, even as the rest of the tech industry continues to enjoy consistently stratospheric public approval ratings, Facebook’s reputation recently took a major nosedive, falling from a net favorability of 61 percent in October 2017 to 48 percent in March 2018.
As a result, it should come as no surprise that this is the event that forced Mr. Zuckerberg to finally cross what has hitherto been Silicon Valley’s Rubicon: openly embracing and even actively suggesting government regulation for the industry. In order to finally dissociate itself of the Russia affair, Facebook could do nothing else. And now, with the die cast and regulations a foregone conclusion, what’s next?
To answer that question, we first need to identify the problem we’re trying to solve. Unfortunately, the congressional hearings from this past week don’t give us much insight on that front. Legislators asked questions that ran the gamut from perceived censorship of conservative voices online and the digital advertising market to broadband deployment and data breach notification requirements. Faced with such a grab bag of issues, policymakers should narrow their focus and hone in on the one area where there appears to be bipartisan agreement: updating the disclosure rules for political advertising.
To that end, Congress should take up consideration of the Honest Ads Act. This bill would update the Federal Election Campaign Act to (1) expand the definition of “public communication” to include paid digital communications, (2) establish a disclosure requirement for the sponsor(s) of paid political advertisements online, and (3) create an open and publicly accessible database of paid online political advertisements. Writing in support of the bill back in October 2017, Harvard University law professor Yochai Benkler appropriately summed up the its impact:
The [Honest Ads Act] is a narrowly tailored effort to remove the anachronistic treatment of social media and search advertising, and to recognize that online advertising has come of age. By focusing only on paid communication, it avoids sweeping in genuinely open, citizen-driven mobilization and expression. Nothing in this bill would require a grassroots campaign made up of actual citizens expressing their actual views to mark its members or messages any differently than has been the case before. … The bill won’t, by any stretch of the imagination, close all the pathways through which a foreign government or other propagandist could seek to influence beliefs online, but it will help moderate the extent to which propagandists who seek to manipulate public opinion can leverage the enormous data and behavioral marketing tools that Facebook and Google have developed without disclosing who they are and exposing what they are doing to public scrutiny. That would be a significant step forward relative to where we find ourselves today.
Mandating greater transparency in online political advertising is a necessary first step in restoring the public’s trust in the democratic process, basic institutions of governance, and the broader tech industry. But the Honest Ads Act can’t cure everything that ails our weakened democracy, and Facebook and the rest of the tech industry now have a vital role to play in what will likely be an increasingly collaborative process between industry and government.
Moving forward with the Honest Ads Act is the best available option for policymakers, Facebook and the tech industry, and the American people. It’s time for Congress to make the next move.