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New legislation takes aim at social networks

Earlier this week, in discussing Facebook's settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy
July 31 · Issue #359 · View online
The Interface
Earlier this week, in discussing Facebook’s settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy violations, I lamented that the United States is governing technology platforms through fines rather than laws. Even if settlements like these satiate the public demand for accountability — and it’s not clear that this one will — they change none of the underlying conditions that enable companies to violate our privacy in the first place.
For that, you need laws — and so, let’s check in on three laws now under consideration.
One, today there was a flurry of activity surrounding potential privacy legislation in the Senate. A push for national privacy legislation began after California passed its own privacy law last year, modeled in part on Europe’s General Data Protection Legislation, and tech lobbyists hope to push through a national law to prevent a patchwork of them from developing state by state. But it faltered when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she would oppose any legislation that overrides state law.
Rebecca Kern reported on the current state of the play in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans have very different ideas. The peg for this story is that Democrats have a new draft framework for privacy legislation. They want individuals to be able to sue tech platforms for misusing their data — a so-called “private right of action.” Republicans are opposed.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) developed the draft framework, which the sources said also includes data security provisions, as Republican and Democratic lawmakers in both chambers work on broad privacy legislation. The move may complicate the chances that the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will advance any privacy bill this year.
“We’re not going to have a private right of action,” committee chairman Roger Wicker(R-Miss.) told reporters. “It’s totally a non-starter.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) is pushing what he calls the SMART Act — an effort to ban a variety of common growth and engagement features, some of which are arguably the lifeblood of the targeted products. Emily Stewart highlights some of the bill’s requirements at Vox:
Banning infinite scroll, auto refill, and badges and awards users get for engagement, except for in certain circumstances — such as music streaming or badges that “substantially increase” access to new services or functions, like giving a person access to a premium version of a product.
Requiring social media platforms to include “natural stopping points” for users, which would basically end scrolling after a certain amount of content.
Requiring platforms to make it a neutral process for users to accept or deny consent terms — meaning accept and decline boxes would have to look the same.
Requiring social media companies to make it easier for users to track the amount of time they spend on their platforms.
Automatically limiting the time users can spend on a platform across all devices to 30 minutes a day. Users would be able change the limits, but they would have to do so every month.
It’s easy to dismiss the bill as a nonstarter. It’s an effort to radically alter a sector of the economy using limitations that look, at least on their surface, fairly arbitrary. I asked some Silicon Valley types about the bill last night at a dinner, and they more or less howled in disbelief that such a law like this could be proposed.
Among other things, it’s just very broad. As my colleague Adi Robertson points out, Hawley’s bill would place restrictions on any site that includes user-generated content:
Unlike Mark Warner’s DETOUR dark-patterns act, Hawley doesn’t have an equivalent to “Large Online Operaters” — i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. It essentially treats anything where people talk to each other on the internet as an evil time-suck.
I’m sympathetic to that criticism, and suspect Hawley’s bill will not become law. Some of its provisions seem like gifts to other industries. Limit Americans to 30 minutes a day on social media, for example, and I imagine they’ll spend a great deal of their newfound time rediscovering television.
And yet I can’t help but wondering what might happen if at least some of its provisions were implemented. Would teens be happier if the United States outlawed Snapchat streaks, as this bill would do? Would YouTube recruit fewer people into the far right if autoplay video were illegal?
It seems valuable as a thought experiment, at least.
In the meantime, another bill under consideration has proposed a different type of experiment. Here’s Stewart again:
Another proposed law in Congress, the CAMRA Act, sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), is trying to promote a data-driven approach to investigating the idea of social media addiction. The legislation would authorize the National Institutes of Health to head a research program on the effects of technology and the media on children. The legislation has five cosponsors, including three Republicans. Hawley’s office has not yet signed onto the bill and said they are reviewing the legislation.
Research on the effects of social media to date has been limited, and its conclusions often contradictory. It’s good to see bipartisan support for an effort to bolster that research, and generate data that might someday lead to better regulations. As it stands now, that day seems very far away. But I suppose we have to start somewhere.

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Thread by robin on Rosegarden, archived six hours ago
And finally ...
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