Facebook’s Nick Clegg calls for bipartisan approach to break the deadlock on internet regulation
All over the world, legislators are writing the new rules for the internet. Laws are being proposed in Europe, India, Australia, the UK and other countries to regulate everything from privacy and content to the size and competitiveness of tech companies to the storage, sharing and use of data on a large scale.
That’s a good thing – regulation is overdue. Many of these important issues have been left to private companies for too long to resolve on their own. Facebook is far from opposed to regulation and has been campaigning for it in a number of areas for some time.
President Biden has called for a global alliance of “techno-democracies”, but technology regulation efforts in Washington have stalled. Much of the domestic debate is about the breakup of big tech companies, but not about fundamental societal issues – such as rules of privacy, security, content and data sharing – that can only be determined by regulation.
This is a crucial moment. As policymakers begin to legislate, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are different ideas about what the Internet should be like. The open, accessible, and global Internet we use today has been shaped by American businesses and American values such as freedom of expression, transparency, accountability, and the promotion of innovation and entrepreneurship. However, these values cannot be taken for granted.
The Chinese Internet model – separated from the broader Internet and subject to extensive surveillance – poses a risk to the open Internet. Other countries, including Vietnam, Russia and Turkey, have taken steps in a similar direction.
Even in many open democratic societies there is talk of “data sovereignty” and attempts are made to curb American companies and the exchange of data. Seamless data flows are the blood of an open internet. However, European court rulings have cast doubt on the transfer of data between the EU and the US. Protecting our economies by ensuring the free flow of data between the EU and the US should be an urgent priority on both sides of the Atlantic. In India, the world’s largest democracy, regulators have published rules that expand the government’s ability to instruct social media platforms to track down and remove content, including private messages.
The US is in danger of becoming a nation that exports incredible technology but does not export its values. To move forward, we need to break the deadlock in DC. While there is significant disagreement between Democrats and Republicans, no one wants the status quo and both sides agree.
I’m an outsider in both Silicon Valley and Washington. My background is in British and European politics. As Deputy Prime Minister in the UK’s first coalition government in generations, I led a naturally center-left party into a constructive intergovernmental agreement with a center-right party. It worked because we focused on making progress on the things we agreed on.
Here are four areas where I believe that a bipartisan approach could make rapid progress.
First, the reform of Section 230. People of all political beliefs want large companies to take responsibility for combating illegal content and activity on their platforms. And when they remove harmful content, people want them to do it fairly and transparently. Congress could start there.
Platforms should only continue to be protected from liability for the content they provide if they can demonstrate that they have solid methods in place to identify and quickly remove illegal content. While it would be impractical to hold them liable if certain content escapes detection – there are billions of posts every day – they should be encouraged to follow industry best practices. Congress could also bring more transparency, accountability, and control over the processes that large internet companies use to set rules and enforce what users can do or say about their service.
Second, Congress could do more to protect itself from influence operations. Businesses can and do this to eradicate organized networks that seek to mislead people and undermine public confidence. But Congress can create a deterrent that no industry effort can match. Our teams have published recommended principles for regulation in this area, with an emphasis on imposing costs on the people behind these campaigns and clarifying the line between deception and advocacy. Congress could act now to demand platform transparency, allow the lawful exchange of information, and place direct liability on the individuals and organizations behind operations with malicious influence. Congress could also update the rules for using social media in elections – rules that haven’t changed significantly to accommodate the internet age. For example, we have supported regulations like the Honest Ads Act and the Deter Act to prevent voting disruption.
Third, Congress can break the blockade of federal data protection laws. The US is watching from the sidelines as others write the global privacy game book, which has a profound impact on American values, competitiveness, and national security. But there are plenty of Democrats and Republicans to agree on. By finding a reasonable middle ground, Congress could make real progress, such as putting in place strong enforcement and ensuring business security for businesses.
Fourth, Congress should establish clear rules on data portability so that people can better move and “vote with their feet” their data between services. It could also create rules that regulate how platforms should exchange data for the common good. As society grapples with misinformation, harmful content, and increasing polarization, Facebook research could provide insights that will help develop evidence-based solutions. To do this, however, there must be a clear legal framework for data research that protects the privacy of the individual.
To address these and other issues, the US could create a new digital regulator. Not only would a new regulator be able to master the competing trade-offs in digital space, but it could also tie the dots between content, data, and economic impact – much like the Federal Communications Commission has successfully overseen regulators over telecommunications and Media.
By focusing on the areas where there is mutual agreement, Congress can break the impasse and create the most comprehensive internet legislation of a generation. In this way, it can help keep American values at the heart of the global internet.
Nick Clegg is Facebook Vice President for Global Affairs, former UK Deputy Prime Minister and former Member of the European Parliament.