Tech platforms are facing an unprecedented amount of pressure.

With U.S. elections drawing near, companies such as Twitter and Facebook are under close scrutiny over how they filter content and scan for misinformation, and the Justice Department is exploring an antitrust lawsuit targeting Google parent Alphabet Inc. for its dominance in online search and advertising.

What does this all mean for the future of big tech and our democracy?

The Wall Street Journal's executive Washington editor, Gerald F. Seib, spoke with Rep. David Cicilline (D., R.I.); Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.); Microsoft Corp.'s chief privacy officer, Julie Brill; and Alex Stamos, director of Stanford University's Stanford Internet Observatory.

Here are edited excerpts of the conversation at the WSJ Tech Live conference.

What's at stake

MR. SEIB: Sen. Hawley, you summoned the executives of Twitter and Facebook to the Senate Judiciary Committee to talk about a New York Post story that had emails from Hunter Biden from a laptop, the veracity of which is hard to determine. Can you talk about why you did that, and why as a conservative you don't think it's OK for the marketplace to work out issues such as sorting out information, misinformation, disinformation and outright interference?

SEN. HAWLEY: Facebook, in particular, is a monopoly. Google is a monopoly. They have unprecedented power in the American economy, over American news, over the distribution of information and communication. You can see that power in real time with this attempt to censor, to throttle down the distribution of this New York Post story.

I don't know if the story, if the facts are accurate or not. What I do know is I believe in a free press. And when you have a monopoly in Facebook that is attempting to stop the distribution of the news, we have a problem. It's not just with the New York Post. They can do it to any media. They can do it to individuals and have been for a long, long time. This is what monopolies do, and it's time to check their power.

MR. SEIB: Congressman Cicilline, you come at this from the other side of the aisle. You had the hearings this summer with the big tech CEOs. You said there that they have too much power. How do you propose to deal with that power?

REP. CICILLINE: We conducted a 16-month bipartisan investigation into the digital marketplace to look at large technology platforms and how that marketplace was operating. We concluded in a nearly 400-page report that these platforms have monopoly power. They use that power to maintain their market dominance. They do it by bullying competitors, preferencing their own goods and services, and they have used that dominance to act as gatekeepers into this part of our economy.

We put forth in the report a menu of options to look at ways we can reform through our competition policy to bring more competition into this marketplace. Some ideas like structural separation so you can either be a provider of goods and services or a marketplace, but not both.

Then a series of recommendations to strengthen our antitrust laws, to modernize and update them. And reviving antitrust enforcement with a set of new procedures and private enforcement, and a number of other recommendations.

MR. SEIB: Julie, there's another big issue on the radar screen here, and that's privacy. What's the best way to deal with protecting privacy? Is it self-regulation by the companies, legislation, regulation or something else?

MS. BRILL: We're at an inflection point right now when it comes to privacy. We have an opportunity to create rules that will allow for responsible data use and innovation and at the same time protect privacy. We're hearing from our customers, and something that was demonstrated by the Covid pandemic was that companies don't know what the guardrails are. They don't know what the rules of the road are in terms of how they can use data to solve problems today. So, companies are asking for clearer rules.

We also know that individuals who own their data believe that they don't have enough control over it and don't understand what companies and governments are doing with data. We recently conducted a poll, 5,000 registered voters, who by an overwhelming majority say they want action on privacy legislation. We have conversations going on in Congress where Democrats and Republicans are putting forward proposals. There is a lot of commonality there.

We are at a moment where we can move forward with legislation. If we don't, the rest of the world is moving forward. These are jurisdictions that are looking at how they should create rules to be interoperable with global norms and also protect individuals' privacy and allow innovation to flourish.

If the United States doesn't move forward, we will lose our thought leadership on this important issue.

Domestic trouble?

MR. SEIB: Alex, let me ask you to talk a little bit about how you think the tech industry is handling these challenges.

MR. STAMOS: One of the most concerning things [in 2016] was foreign interference by a number of different Russian agencies, but also private social-media groups. In that case, the companies have acted pretty well. They've put in rules to stop that kind of activity, to catch when people are posting content that isn't necessarily violating any rules on their own but in aggregate are part of an influence operation to change how people are discussing our democracy. And they've staffed up pretty good-sized teams.

Now, there's a big difference, unfortunately, between the big companies and the small companies. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter specifically, all those companies have staffed up large teams who are doing really good work in this area. There is a long tail of sites that don't have the resources to do that work.

The problem is that most of the information problem around this election is domestic. The vast majority of disinformation that's trying to confuse people on how to vote, convince people not to vote or to possibly cause violence around voting, the vast majority is from domestic actors.

For that, the companies are in real trouble, and partially because this has become so politicized. Both Democrats and Republicans don't like tech companies right now. They both use the same words. They talk about antitrust, they talk about monopoly, but they both want different outcomes.

In the end, what's happening is the companies are in the middle of a political fight over their ability to change the conversation. And two sides want very, very different things out of their ability to shape and to control speech. There's not really a process here that is democratic or open. These decisions are being made in private rooms based upon external political pressure.

The industry, after the election, they're going to have to move to a much more public and transparent method for having these discussions and arguments, and coming to conclusions, because right now they're acting in a quasigovernmental manner without the trappings of legitimacy, and they are open to being pressured by various political actors.

MR. SEIB: Well, let's take advantage of the presence of two members of Congress here to ask, what do you want? What is the outcome you're looking for?

SEN. HAWLEY: I'd like them to stop abusing their monopoly power by ceasing to have it. I think an antitrust suit against Google is warranted and probably against Facebook also.

We need to change our laws to get at this concentration of power that these tech companies have amassed. Number one, consumers ought to have control over their data.

Behavioral advertising, which is where most of these companies really make their money, should not be immunized by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That's the immunity shield that has allowed these companies to become the behemoths that they are.

And it's time to revise section 230 itself. If these companies enforce their terms of service unequally, then individuals ought to be able to take them to court. They are treated unlike any other media company in America. They are immunized from suits just about across the board. They have all the power, individuals have no power. It's time to redress that balance.

MR. SEIB: Congressman Cicilline, what are the options that appeal to you?

REP. CICILLINE: I agree with much of what Sen. Hawley just said. Many of the problems that we're discussing this afternoon are a direct result of the enormous market power of these large technology firms. The absence of competition has resulted in a decline of innovation, oppressive contracts, anticompetitive behaviors.

What we want is antitrust enforcement that brings competition into the marketplace, that will allow consumers to have more control of their data, that will allow consumers to have greater privacy protections, that will prevent these platforms from engaging in anticompetitive behavior that favors their own products and services, that doesn't allow them to acquire data that then permits them to acquire competitors, to bully competitors, to exclude people from their market.

All of the good competition policy that we fought so hard to include in the history of our country needs to be protected, and we need to bring real competition to this digital marketplace.

Write to reports@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 22, 2020 16:19 ET (20:19 GMT)

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