Senate bill would create federal watchdog for Big Tech

The agency could address controversial subjects like algorithm bias.

Sen. Michael Bennet on Thursday introduced a bill that would create a federal watchdog for oversight of Big Tech companies, empowering new agency to address controversial issues like algorithm bias and transparency in content moderation.

The bill comes from the Colorado Democrat as tech giants face heightened scrutiny from both sides of the aisle in Congress, which has generated high-profile hearings and adversarial rhetoric but has struggled to pass legislation.

The latest push for reform follows a series of bombshell revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen as well as an agreement between European Union lawmakers over a landmark law that will closely regulate the sector. The Washington Post first reported Bennet’s bill.

“As a country, we should take pride that most of the world leading tech companies were founded in America. But they are not start-ups anymore. Today they rank among the most powerful companies in human history, “Bennett said in a statement on Thursday.

“It’s a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to past time, regulating digital platforms that have amassed extraordinary power over our economy, society, and democracy,” he added.

The new agency will develop and enforce rules that regulate company conduct, mimicking the role played by oversight bodies that police pharmaceutical drugs or media standards, according to a summary of the bill provided by Bennett’s office.

The proposed legislation calls for the formation of the Federal Digital Platform Commission made up of five members, who will hold hearings, carry out investigations, and implement new rules. The agency would also include a Code Council featuring individuals from the industry and civil society who can offer further technical expertise, the bill summary said.

The bill will likely face a difficult path to passage in the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow 50-50 majority due to a potential tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris. While some Republicans have criticized Big Tech firms over perceived anti-conservative bias and other faults, they have also shown a reluctance to expand regulatory reach of the federal government.

Meanwhile, some Big Tech leaders have expressed support for a sector-specific regulatory agency like the one outlined in the bill. At a congressional hearing in March 2021, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said a new agency “could be very effective and positive for helping out.” Microsoft President Brad Smith last month signed a privacy summit with the approval of such an oversight body.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), led by legal scholar and Big Tech critic Lina Khan, serves as a major regulatory agency for the tech giants. Last July, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that called on the FTC to develop rules on data collection and challenge prior company mergers. But progress on regulation at the agency is currently limited.

In a separate attempt from the Biden administration, the Justice Department has brought a lawsuit against Google over alleged antitrust violations.

Current watchdogs have proven insufficient for new challenges posed by the tech industry, said Tom Wheeler, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission who called the proposed bill “historic.”

“Our existing regulatory agencies were built in the industrial era on industrial-age concepts, and the challenge of 21st-century regulators is: how do you take statutes to respond in different realities and relate to what is happening in the digital world? ” said Wheeler, who called for the formation of such a watchdog.

“Let’s create an inherently digital agency,” he added.

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