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Congress May Soon Impose New Regulations On Facebook


Is Facebook ripe for disruption in 2019? That's a question we're asking in this week's All Tech Considered.


SHAPIRO: Generally, Washington has taken a hands-off approach to tech platforms, not wanting to slow down an economic powerhouse. After multiple scandals involving Facebook, though, this attitude seems to be changing. Conservative lawmakers have criticized the social media giant for what they view as censorship of their end of the political spectrum. And now, as NPR's Tim Mak reports, progressives are becoming critics, too, for different reasons.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Power - this one word sums up the rise in concerns on the left about tech behemoth Facebook.

SARAH MILLER: The fundamental problem with Facebook is its power - its market power, its power over the discourse, its power over the way we think and consume information.

MAK: That's Sarah Miller. She's a co-chair of Freedom from Facebook, a coalition of progressive groups opposed to the social media company.

MILLER: Because of its control over information, it is really one of the world's most dangerous monopolies.

MAK: Over the past year, Facebook endured a scandal over Cambridge Analytica's use of personal data and has seen its stock price plummet over privacy concerns. Facebook has been accused by Congress of being used to spread Russian disinformation. And it has also been accused by U.N. experts of being used to incite violence in Myanmar. Here's Miller again.

MILLER: We don't want to live in a country where Mark Zuckerberg decides who lives or who dies.

MAK: As criticism has mounted, Facebook hired an opposition research firm that attempted to discredit Freedom from Facebook by linking the group to George Soros. By the way, Soros' foundation have supported NPR in the past. This tactic of linking Freedom from Facebook to Soros, who is Jewish, struck some of Facebook's critics as anti-Semitic. So Facebook severed ties with the research firm. The social network did not comment on the story by deadline, but Facebook has said in the past that it is open to privacy regulation. So following these scandals, lawmakers on the left are increasingly turning their attention to regulating Facebook.

RON WYDEN: On issue after issue, Facebook has not told the truth to their customers.

MAK: That Senator Ron Wyden, the Democrat from Oregon who has been a leading progressive voice on issues from consumer protection to killer drones to the big banks. He is championing new data privacy legislation and believes that the left is increasingly passionate about the need for reforms to Facebook and other big tech firms.

WYDEN: This is an issue where our side that wants some accountability and some dramatic reforms to put the consumer in the driver's seat - I think we're picking up grassroots support continually.

MAK: Wyden told NPR that Facebook is in an endless cycle in which it lies to consumers, then apologizes, then undertakes what Wyden called meaningless reforms.

WYDEN: We're going to have to say, if these CEOs lie to their customers and lie to the federal government, there's going to have to be a real deterrent. That means significant fines and the possibility they will serve jail time.

MAK: Wyden's frustration is shared by Senator Mark Warner, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been investigating Facebook's role in Russian interference with the U.S. political system.

MARK WARNER: This is not going to be an area where we can rely upon the goodwill or self-policing of these platforms.

MAK: Sarah Miller, who, as you might remember, leads the progressive anti-Facebook coalition, is proposing one solution.

MILLER: We have kind of all come together around a set of solutions that includes restructuring the company, so breaking up Facebook, allowing competition to kind of flourish again in the social media space.

MAK: This thinking has at least one ideological ally on the right. Conservative Senator Ted Cruz has suggested he supports using anti-trust laws to break up big tech firms. With Republicans concerned about censorship, Democrats concerned about privacy and no end in sight for the scandals, Facebook finds itself in the unenviable position of having to weather a rare bipartisan storm. The question now is what action Congress will take in the year ahead. Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.

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