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Senator lays out plan to fight disinformation, and rein in Big Tech

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Mark Warner, Democratic Vice-Chairman of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, has proposed a list of 20 measures that could help fight online abuse and disinformation, and keep Big Tech companies in line.

The white paper – which has been circulated throughout US technology policy circles – has been obtained by Axios. It covers the challenges of fighting misinformation, protecting privacy and promoting competition in tech, in response to scandals (such as Kremlin-backed interference in the 2016 presidential election and the Cambridge Analytica case) and concerns about the monopolistic behaviour of some Big Tech companies.

In his paper, Warner proposes setting aside federal funding for media literacy programmes led by local and state educational institutions to help build long-term resistance to manipulative digital content; programmes are being developed in some European countries. However, he says that such a programme must complement – not stand in for – hard measures taken by and against internet companies.

“It is not enough for social media companies or the tech community to simply give lip service to building long-term resiliency and media literacy without taking some much more significant short-term steps in addressing the threat we face in the here and now. A public effort like this should be seen as augmenting or supporting more assertive and more aggressive policy steps,” he wrote.

According to the paper, these steps would require the companies to be proactive in labelling and removing manipulative content. Warner proposes the duty to clearly label bots, which are currently indistinguishable from humans at a glance; to label the origin of social media posts and accounts (this is already being trialled by Facebook); and to identify and take down fake social media accounts. Social media companies could also be made legally liable for failing to proactively remove deceitful content targeting victims, such as ‘deep fake’ videos, removing the burden from the victim to fight for its removal.

Internet platforms could also – Warner proposes – be labelled as ‘information fiduciaries, which would give them the responsibility to adhere to a code of conduct similar to those of financial institutions.

The paper also argues that US election laws are outdated and must be updated for the digital age, such as by requiring disclosure for online political adverts.

The Senator has further called on government to treat online foreign manipulation as a serious threat by forming a task force dedicated to “countering asymmetric threats to democratic institutions” which do not fit neatly into current agencies and their responsibilities, and by setting aside some defence spending to tackling these threats.

“The US has often done too little to respond to cyberattacks against us or our allies. When we do respond, it has often been done quietly, and on a one-off basis. That’s not been enough to deter future action,” he wrote.  “We need to make clear to Russia and other nations, that if you go after us in the cyber realm, we’re going to punch back using our own cyber capabilities.”

Warner also proposes a bill – the Public Interest Data Access Bill – which would force the largest social media platforms to provide public interest researchers with access to secure and anonymous activity data to help inform policy.

Other measures include guidelines and regulations to protect user privacy – particularly with regard to social media companies – and increase competition in the sector, such as by requiring algorithms to be tested for fairness. Warner even suggests that a US equivalent to the EU’s GDPR rules could be considered in order to empower users.

However, it has been noted that Warner’s paper does not suggest breaking up major tech companies to prevent monopolies and to encourage competition, or creating a federal regulator for internet issues.

There is no guarantee that these plans will be enacted, although a swing towards the Democrats during November’s midterm elections could boost Warner’s proposals, while state legislatures may take inspiration from Warner’s paper and begin to implement some of his suggestions at the state level.

“The size and reach of these platforms demand that we ensure proper oversight, transparency and effective management of technologies that in large measure undergird our social lives, our economy and our politics,” he wrote. “The hope is that the ideas enclosed here stir the pot and spark wider discussion – among policymakers, stakeholders, and civil society groups – on the appropriate trajectory of technology policy in coming years.”

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