FCC chairman says Twitter, Facebook, Google may need transparency lawSeptember 5, 2018
The leader of the Federal Communications Commission says that major web companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have offered little transparency into how they work — and it’s time to seriously consider forcing them to tell us.
In a blog post today, FCC chairman Ajit Pai calls out a long list of algorithmic and moderation decisions by web companies (including Twitter choosing not to ban New York Times columnist Sarah Jeong, a former Verge writer) and says that “consumers have virtually no insight” into how or why they happen. The same goes for privacy issues around how and where our data is used, Pai says.
“The public deserves to know more about how these companies operate,” he writes. “And we need to seriously think about whether the time has come for these companies to abide by new transparency obligations.”
Pai’s blog post is timed to a congressional hearing that will see Facebook and Twitter executives sitting in front of a House committee tomorrow to answer questions around transparency. (Google was invited, but declined to appear.) The fact that Pai is even weighing in here is unusual: web companies make great use of the networks his agency regulates, but he does not regulate these web companies.
On top of that, Pai actively fought and stripped away similar regulations on the companies that he does regulate — internet providers. Privacy rules covering the vast amounts of data that your internet provider is capable of seeing were among the first things he scrapped after taking charge of the commission.
The points Pai makes about tech companies are not altogether wrong. How the algorithms behind major websites work and what’s happening to our data are increasingly considered critical questions, and the demand for transparency is growing.
But Pai comes at it from the same approach as President Trump, cherry-picking examples to make it seem like these are liberal companies out to silence conservative voices, rather than platforms keeping their sites safe. One example he pulls out is YouTube demonetizing videos from PragerU, a nonprofit (which is not a university) that the Southern Poverty Law Center described as offering “dog whistles to the extreme right.” Among the videos pulled were several with Islamophobic titles like “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?”
Those are moderation issues, and tech companies have increasingly been pressed to do a better job of cleaning their sites of similarly offensive content. Pai even notes in his blog post that such decisions are permissible because private companies “do not violate the First Amendment when they make certain business judgments about content on their sites.”
Pai also takes a jab at net neutrality supporters in his blog post, while misunderstanding what net neutrality means. He calls out Twitter for an error that stopped an AT&T blog post on net neutrality from being retweeted “ironically, on a day advocating about the importance of net neutrality.” But net neutrality covers internet service providers like AT&T, not web companies like Twitter, which no one is saying ought to remain perfectly neutral.
There is one core thread running through his blog post, though: that there should probably be some sort of transparency or accountability requirements on web providers, forcing them to disclose information on how they work. Though Pai stops short of fully calling for this, he compares a possible disclosure requirement with what the FCC asks of internet providers — that they share some basic information on speed, pricing, and management practices.
“After all, just as is the case with respect to broadband providers, consumers need accurate information in order to make educated choices about whether and how to use these tech giants’ platforms,” Pai writes.
This is, again, somewhat strange as Pai largely removed the FCC’s ability to make sure the companies it actually regulates are being honest in their disclosures. But the point is one that may be increasingly agreed upon in Capitol Hill.
Ultimately, though, the blog post seems to be a low-key way of dismissing calls for net neutrality and shifting the gaze of critics. Republicans and internet providers have long tried to conflate what web companies do with what ISPs do, arguing that both should be covered by the same set of rules. In his blog post, Pai lays out the argument that what web companies are doing should be what really scares us.