Warner hints at new regs for social media

Twitter's Jack Dorsey and Facebook's Sheryl Sandburg faced tough questions from lawmakers and a lot of theater during a day on Capitol Hill, but it's unclear whether oversight will yield new laws or regs.

shutterstock photo ID: 172513469 By Ivelin Radkov

Months after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified for more than five hours before a Senate committee, lawmakers got the chance to question Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey over foreign interference in the 2016 election, and how to prevent similar efforts in the future.

But for all the fanfare surrounding Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's first Capitol Hill appearance as witnesses, the hearings — one on the Senate side, the other on the House side — themselves quickly took a familiar course.

Dorsey and Sandburg admitted they didn't previously do enough to detect and thwart influence campaigns, and offered assurances to lawmakers that they are now doing more. Both hearings adjourned without much clarity about what if anything government is going to do to regulate the companies.

The susceptibility of social media platforms to misinformation campaigns and the exacerbation of public discourse "demand we as policymakers do our job of oversight," said Vice-Ranking Member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Mark Warner (D-Va.).

"I'm skeptical that, ultimately, you'll be able to truly address this challenge on your own," he told the executives. "Congress is going to have to take action here."

One proposal from Warner that Dorsey indicated support for was the labeling of automated accounts to provide users with more context.

"I think that is useful context," he said. "We can certainly label and add context to accounts… Where it becomes a lot trickier is where automation touches scripting" that disguises automated activity.

Committee chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) wondered "if there are any rules… that are obstacles to collaboration" between the social media giants, and whether something like an antitrust waiver would be necessary.

The executive branch might not be on board with granting that kind of exemption.

Following the Senate hearing, the Department of Justice released a statement saying Attorney General Jeff Sessions will meet with state attorneys general later this month "to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms."

Generally, the responses from the social media executives stuck to previous public talking points, but both Dorsey and Sandberg did point to steps they've taken in recent months to govern its platforms.

Sandberg, for instance, ticked off a number of accounts it has shut down and Facebook's partnerships with law enforcement, industry and government.

Dorsey said Twitter was "unprepared and ill-equipped for the immensity of the problems" encountered in the leadup to the 2016 election, and added he would be open to "more collaboration with government partners."

Dorsey pointed to three areas where he "would like to see more strength" — more regularly scheduled meetings with law enforcement, more insight into trends of disinformation efforts, as well as to having a single point of contact to avoid "bouncing between multiple agencies to do our work."

When it comes to policing these sites, "we can't do this alone, and that's why this conversation is so important, and why I'm here," said Dorsey.

"We don't think it's a question of whether regulation. We think it's a question of right regulation," added Sandberg. "We're happy to work with you on the proposal."

Sen. Angus King (I-ME) also pointed out part of government's struggles to handle these foreign campaigns is due to its lack of a cyber doctrine .

And while senators have introduced legislation to regulate these tech giants, it's unclear what they will ultimately agree on.

"The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end," Warner said, conceding, "where we go from here, though, is an open question."

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