How Lawmakers Want to Rein in Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a House Energy and Commerce hearing April 11 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a House Energy and Commerce hearing April 11 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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Mark Zuckerberg's marathon testimony foreshadowed that regulations are coming.

If lawmakers learned one thing from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s marathon testimony on Capitol Hill this week, it’s that reining in the social media giant and tech industry as a whole may prove more difficult than they thought.

Zuckerberg fielded questions from two congressional panels on a slew of topics including how Cambridge Analytica walked away with data on 87 million Americans, whether his company is a monopoly, and how Facebook balances free speech with zero tolerance policies.

Though his testimony felt a bit rehearsed and at times sounded like a teenager explaining technology to his grandparents, it raised a number of critical questions about the role of tech in society, the seeming lack of control Americans have over their online lives and the nature of online politicking.

Since the revelation that Russia used social media to meddle in the 2016 election, lawmakers have introduced a handful of bills that would put limits on online politicking and sweeping data collection, and many called on Zuckerberg to weigh in on the legislation.

While he refused to commit definitively on any one bill, he told the Senate on Tuesday, “I think the real question, as the internet becomes more important in people's lives, is what is the right regulation, not whether there should be or not.”

Here’s a look at some of the ways lawmakers propose keeping Facebook’s power at bay:

Honest Ads Act

The Honest Ads Act, introduced by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va. and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., would require social media and other web platforms to disclose who paid for political advertisements on their site. By expanding the definition of “electioneering communication” to include paid political ads online, the legislation would subject internet campaigns to the same regulations that govern political ads on TV, radio and print publications.

At first, Facebook and other tech titans poured significant resources into fighting online ad regulation, but Zuckerberg threw his support behind the bill last Friday and Twitter followed suit shortly after.

Twenty lawmakers have signed onto the legislation since October, but a lack of bipartisan support has stalled the bill in the upper chamber. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., remains the only Republican who’s signed on.

“This is an important area for the whole industry to move on,” Zuckerberg said.

CONSENT Act

Under the Customer Online Notification for Stopping Edge-provider Network Transgressions Act, or CONSENT Act, consumers would have to give social media platforms and other online services the green light before they can use, share or sell any personal data.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., who introduced the bill Tuesday as Zuckerberg testified before the Senate, dubbed it a “privacy bill of rights … built on a simple philosophy that will return autonomy to consumers.”

On top of mandating explicit opt-in policies, the legislation would require “edge-providers” like Facebook and Google to notify users any time their data was collected, shared or used, and also strengthen requirements for cybersecurity and reporting data breaches. In theory, the measure would outlaw the covert data collection techniques used by Cambridge Analytica.

“In general, I think that principle is exactly right and we should have a discussion. I think the details matter a lot,” Zuckerberg said.

BROWSER Act

The Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly Act, or BROWSER Act, would boost the Federal Trade Commission’s authority to enforce privacy protections and mandates users opt in to certain types of data collection.

A somewhat watered-down version of the CONSENT Act, the legislation requires broadband providers, websites and mobile apps that offer certain types of services to get consumers’ explicit consent to access, disclose or use information on:

  • finances,
  • health,
  • children ages 13 and under,
  • Social Security numbers,
  • precise geolocation,
  • browsing history,
  • online messages and other communication, and
  • app usage.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who introduced the bill, grilled Zuckerberg on user privacy and data ownership, and whether he would commit to working with Congress to pass the legislation.

“I’m not directly familiar with the details of [the bill],” he said.

Secure and Protect Americans’ Data Act

The legislation would set minimum information security standards for companies holding consumer data and require them to alert affected consumers within 30 days of any data breach. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., reintroduced the bill in the wake of the Equifax data breach that exposed sensitive information on more than 143 million Americans last year.

Listing off the numerous apologies Zuckerberg made for Facebook’s conduct over the last decade, Schakowsky pressed him on how long it would take to finish investigating how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data and who they might have shared that information with.

“We expect [the audit] to take many months. I hope not [years],” Zuckerberg said.