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Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Facebook must be held to account

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, (D-IL), is Chair of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee in the United States House of Representatives.

I interviewed Rep. Schakowsky on Tuesday to get her reactions to the recent revelations from the numerous reports based on documents brought forward by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, and to find out what to expect with regard to the timeline on her proposed legislation. In the past year she has introduced draft bills that would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and instruct the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to conduct oversight of social media platforms and their terms of service.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion.

Justin Hendrix:

Congresswoman Schakowsky, thank you so much for speaking with me.

In March, you put questions to Mark Zuckerberg about the role his platform played in the January 6th insurrection. You asked him at the time if he would admit that Facebook had played a role. He gave a somewhat dismissive answer, saying that certainly there had been problematic content on the platform. And, he suggested that the company needed to do a bit more around content moderation. But these leaks that have come forward from Frances Haugen suggest the company was very aware of the role that it was playing and of the harm that it was causing. What do you make of this in light of the exchange you had in March, and what you’ve learned since?

Rep. Schakowsky:

Well, that wasn’t the only interaction I’ve had with Mark Zuckerberg. And it’s always been, ‘Well we can always do better, we’re trying to do better,’ and never really quite owning up to what they do. And so of course, that was not a full answer, and certainly didn’t reflect what we now know about the role that they actually played. It was an important role and reflects the ongoing problems with Facebook- the so many ways that they have harmed people.

People died on January 6th. [The people who attacked the Capitol] were able to communicate with one another and actually help make it happen because of Facebook. And in my view, we have to create a situation where Facebook is held accountable for the kind of harm that they do in situations like that. You know, they have been mentioned– but not really even blamed– in this investigation that’s going on in Congress for helping to amplify and move along this insurrection. And so we want to create a situation where they have to take responsibility.

Justin Hendrix:

You’ve got senior executives of the company– Zuckerberg included, but also Nick Clegg and others– dismissing the argument that Facebook played a role, putting forward this sort of straw man saying it’s absurd to claim that Facebook was the cause of January 6th. I don’t think that’s what you’re saying, is it?

Rep. Schakowsky:

No, I’m not saying that they were the cause– of course not. But you know, when it makes it much easier to organize, communicate and execute, and that’s what Facebook is about and knew it, they certainly have some responsibility. No, I don’t think they were the cause.

Justin Hendrix:

In August with Representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA), you wrote to Facebook again asking for more information about COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation, and the company refused to reply. This is again another issue that the Facebook Papers– the leaks from Francis Haugen– have brought more clarity to. Did you learn anything new from these disclosures?

Rep. Schakowsky:

You know, Francis Haugen is a hero. The thing that’s really remarkable about what she has produced is that there’s been a lot of information about the role that Facebook has played, but we haven’t seen the documents before. And now that we know that they knew, in black and white, it’s really useful, I think, in going forward. I think American consumers have had that queasiness about Facebook and a lack of confidence in the internet altogether– and about the role that they play supposedly as consumers, and really very often as the product themselves. But now we have seen it much more graphically. I think it’s a game changer in some ways what Francis Haugen did.

Justin Hendrix:

So I want to ask you about these two bills, starting first with the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act, which as I understand it would remove immunities that Section 230 affords the platforms in certain contexts, such as when an online platform recklessly uses an algorithm or other technology to recommend content that contributes to physical or severe emotional injury. Proponents of this bill seem to see it as imperative to addressing misinformation, hate speech and incitement to violence, and the mechanisms on these platforms that let those harms reach scale. But then you’ve got those who say any measure that would restrict the distribution of even unpopular speech or dangerous speech would raise the same First Amendment problems as laws that would prohibit that speech altogether. Now, I’m sure you’ve seen these critiques since you put the bill forward. What do you make of those points of view? How do you reconcile them?

Rep. Schakowsky:

Well the lawyers have always been there arguing these freedom of speech issues, but in fact, it’s not that hard to identify those areas where I think 99% of Americans would nod their head and say, ‘no, this is improper information and dissemination of misinformation on the internet.’ They have hidden themselves from these arguments. You know, at the very beginning of the internet, we said, ‘let’s give them lots of leeway, 230 will give them immunity from prosecution, we want to not squelch any kind of innovation,’ but we are way past that point right now when we have to have some guardrails. And that’s exactly what this does. It may make platforms rethink their algorithms, and these large platforms are going to face possible liability. I think that there’s widespread agreement on that– certainly among the public– but also, I think, among policy makers. We’re certainly not in favor of absolute removal of Section 230 immunities, but we want to set the limits.

It’s clear that Facebook knows no limits. They just know no limits. Anything that they can do to get more eyes on them and on the platform and make more money, they seem more than willing to go along with it. Even the harms. You know, I think the fact that children now, young adolescents, have been so harmed and they knew about it indicates the lengths to which they will go and are willing to go. I think it has really sparked parents to think about, is this right for my children? Can I trust these companies in any way not to do things that are going to cause them depression or food disorders and really dangerous outcomes that Facebook is willing to participate in? And no– we have to set some parameters.

Justin Hendrix:

What can we expect next on this bill?

Rep. Schakowsky:

Well, I think this is the kind of bill for which the moment has arrived. And I think what we need to do now is to get more co-sponsors. And I believe that it is possible to get bipartisan co-sponsorship. Actually, on the 230 issue, there has been more bipartisanship than on many other issues. And so I’m looking forward to now adding to the list of members on both sides of the aisle that want to move something that can start with protecting their children, but in general stop the kind of malicious algorithms that we see.

Justin Hendrix:

So your Online Consumer Protection Act, which you introduced with Representative Kathy Castor (D-FL), had a different approach around Section 230– this idea of using the FTC, giving it authority to oversee and enforce terms of service. Have there been further discussions around that bill text?

Rep. Schakowsky:

Absolutely. In fact, we’ve had a number of round tables where we have, at each one of them, brought stakeholders from business, consumer groups, advocacy organizations, experts to discuss this. And out of that, we have been able to begin, at least, to get the bipartisan support that we want. We are working closely with the Republican Chairman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) of my subcommittee to try and work out how we can say that terms of service, that the platforms identify themselves, that those become real guidelines– they call them community guidelines– and that they have to stick to them. And if they do not, then the FTC can go in and we can go after them for that. Live up to what you say you want to do.

Justin Hendrix:

So critics of this bill would say it creates an onerous compliance mechanism that might get very murky. It might otherwise chill speech. How do you respond to that critique?

Rep. Schakowsky:

Yes, of course they always come back with the same old, I think, worn out arguments. Well, let’s see, you put out these terms of service– do they mean nothing then? Are we not supposed to expect that you will abide by them? And having violated them, do you expect that we’re not going to do any kind of enforcement whatsoever? And so I think it’s very logical to call their bluff now.

Justin Hendrix:

So let me ask you just a last question about what you anticipate in terms of movement on any of these issues. I hear optimism that in your committee on the Hill generally, that there’s a sense that after these whistleblower leaks that the harms are more clear, or certainly that there’s a thunderous fusillade of headlines that make them clear. But I also hear a lot of pessimism from folks in the tech policy community, that these things may not rise to the top of the agenda. What do you make of that? Where will we get to in this Congress?

Rep. Schakowsky:

I think there’s been a cumulative effect among consumers, among ordinary Americans that persuades them that the time of self regulation is over. Literally for years I have seen Mark Zuckerberg at hearing after hearing, but he’s not the only one. The big tech companies and their leaders come on and I think what consumers are saying is, “uh-uh, we can’t leave this enormous field that is dominating our lives unregulated anymore,” that self-regulation does not work. So there’s a real taste for it right now.

So I do feel optimistic, and many of my colleagues have now introduced bills. States have begun to act on their own to reign them in. And so I think this is a moment. Now, not this particular moment, because there’s so much going on to try and get important legislation passed with the infrastructure bill that we’re discussing right now, and the Build Back Better bill. So we’re very busy right now. But I think that particularly next year– and we’re preparing for next year in the subcommittee and reaching out to our members and to the public to get their suggestions– I think next year’s the year that we’re going to actually see bills passed. Absolutely.

Justin Hendrix:

I’m writing about Facebook and this ethical conundrum of its governance- the fact that you’ve got a CEO of a public company that answers to seemingly no one. He’s in a very unique position, and in control of the board. I don’t know if you have any point of view on that- you’ve mentioned a couple times the idea that Facebook seems hard to hold to account.

Rep. Schakowsky:

They’re too big. And I think the antitrust issues– which are not in my particular committee– but the antitrust issues are very, very important. I think Facebook has to be broken down. It’s just too big. When you’ve got a company that is larger than the population of the major nations of the world, being involved in things like genocide around the world because of the use of its online platform, I think they are exceeding the boundaries of any regulation that we have in the world. And so I think they’re too big. I certainly support all the efforts that are going on to have antitrust activity against Facebook, and to break them up into smaller pieces. I think it becomes dangerous to our democracies, to our ability to function really well as a nation and to defend our own laws and make sure that people everywhere are treated well. So, yes, I do have a strong feeling about that, and hopefully that this is going to move along– there is a lot of interest in that right now.

Justin Hendrix:

Thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

Rep. Schakowsky:

Thank you so much.

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