April 12, 2021

At least one member of Congress thinks we need a government agency to regulate social media companies

Technology company executives at Thursday’s hearing had different reactions to Welch’s proposal. | Daniel Acker/Bloomberg...

Technology company executives at Thursday’s hearing had different reactions to Welch’s proposal. | Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

During a hearing with tech CEOs, Rep. Peter Welch asked if they’d be open to a new federal agency focused on social media platforms.

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How can Congress best regulate the monstrosity that is Facebook? At a House Energy and Commerce committee hearing on social media, extremism, and misinformation on Thursday, Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) offered a creative suggestion: a new government agency, somewhat similar to the Federal Trade Commission, that would broadly provide oversight of social media companies.

Much like the FTC or the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Welch argued that such an agency would be staffed by policy and technology experts, and could focus on a wide range of issues, from content standards and data privacy to misinformation and disinformation.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were at the hearing, and Rep. Welch asked them directly if they’d support such an agency, which he described as “the creation by Congress of a public agency … that has rule-making and enforcement authority to be an ongoing representative of the public to address these emerging issues.”

Zuckerberg told the House committee that Welch’s proposal could be “very effective and positive,” noting that such an agency could help with “complex trade-offs” between values of privacy, competition, safety, and free expression. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey said he would have an “open mind” to the idea, depending on the details of how such an entity would work in practice. Meanwhile, Google’s Pichai said he would “defer to Congress” on the question, but agreed “expertise” was needed.

“Social media companies are constantly innovating and changing, and Congress can’t keep up, but a dedicated government entity that can adapt and monitor quickly and effectively can,” Welch suggested in a letter sent to other members of Congress in advance of Thursday’s hearing. The letter, which was viewed by Recode, suggests that this entity would have the flexibility to address a wide range of issues raised by social media platforms, including privacy and data security, content moderation, and liability protections.

Welch’s suggestion stood out at the hearing, which lasted over five hours and largely reviewed ongoing Republican and Democrat concerns about social media platforms, including misinformation, online discrimination, childrens’ welfare on social media, and content moderation.

This also isn’t the first time someone has a proposed a new government agency to regulate social media or technology companies. Paul Barrett, an NYU professor and the deputy director for the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, has called for adding a “digital bureau” to the FTC or for creating a new “Digital Regulatory Agency” that would make sure platforms are meeting certain standards. A bill proposed last year by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and John Thune (R-SD), the “Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act,” similarly calls for the FTC to play a more assertive role in overseeing social media companies. Others have suggested the idea that Congress pass legislation creating accountability and transparency guidelines for social media companies, and leaving it up to another agency to make sure companies are meeting those guidelines.

It’s unclear how likely it is that Congress would create a new federal agency to regulate social media or expand the purview of an existing federal authority to that end. But Thursday’s hearing suggests that the enthusiasm to crack down on these platforms remains strong.

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