Privacy and Child Endangerment are Major Congressional Motivators for Regulating Big Tech

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The House Energy and Commerce Committee heard witness testimony on the need for better transparency and government coordination in the tech industry.

Bipartisan lawmakers and witnesses at a Tuesday House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing agreed that there is an emerging need for Big Tech companies to promote more privacy for online users, with the ban of surveillance advertising one of the critical topics discussed.

“Targeted targeted advertising is at the heart of the online consumer model online business model,” Rep. Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill., “But it fundamentally violates user's privacy in a way that would never be accepted. If consumers were actually given the choice.”

Surveillance advertising, or the practice of targeting ads for goods to online users based on their search history, is a key revenue stream for many websites, especially social media companies. Surveillance ads hinge on using data from users that documents their online behavior, and other factors like location, to match them with products they may purchase.

Critics call the practice invasive and a violation of individual rights to privacy. Another major component to digital advertising are algorithms that help match ads to users. The discriminatory nature of some algorithms was also brought up and addressed by Mutale Nkonde, the chief executive for AI for the People U.S.

Nkonde called for public sector intervention and greater transparency in algorithms’ decision-making. 

“Oversight is impossible, unless a good faith public sector actor has the right to examine how machine learning systems make their determinations,” she testified. “And from an oversight perspective, Congress just needs to know are these products in line of the laws of our land.”

She advocated for impact assessments to be conducted on critical algorithms. 

The hearing additionally explored the intersection of tech companies’ lack of transparency and childrens’ online activity, especially on popular social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

One witness, Florida police officer and special agent supervisor Mike Duffey, described the challenges law enforcement has in policing online crimes, particularly in relation to minors. 

“Social media has become the new “virtual playground” for today’s youth, yet there are very few rules to govern that playground,” Duffey said in his opening statement. He advocated for stronger regulatory and legal frameworks that mandate tech companies participate with law enforcement investigations, mainly through granting access to devices and accounts in emergencies.

He also noted that gaps in knowledge between law enforcement and specific technologies further hinder cooperation.

“I think the failure is the lack of communication between big tech and law enforcement to discuss the trends, to discuss the acronyms, and the use of emojis and the different codes by which today's youth communicate,” Duffey explained. 

These testimonies reflected the general support for bills including "Banning Surveillance Advertising Act of 2022,” the "Algorithmic Accountability Act of 2022,” and the "Cooperation Among Police, Tech and Users to Resist Exploitation Act.”

Should these bills pass into law, they would each demand more government oversight and cooperation with Big Tech companies. Some lawmakers argued that as Russia continues its military assault on Ukraine, both physically and virtually, enhancing regulations over the U.S. tech industry is critical. 

This follows the recent ban Facebook and TikTok enacted on content and misinformation related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The latter social media platform has raised national security concerns about the handling of its American users’ data when it was revealed that the Chinese company ByteDance owns the app. 

“The dangers of foreign adversaries using social media to advance their agenda is clearly a very real danger,” Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., said. “Social media companies have a social responsibility to not allow malign state influences on their websites. And I think our national security depends on that.”