Recent Op-Eds

Holding Big Tech Accountable

By Sen. John Thune

November 6, 2020

I was recently part of a Senate panel that held several of the nation’s top big tech leaders accountable for the content moderation practices at each of their respective companies. The American people deserve to know how their information is being used, censored, and potentially exploited online. These companies have an obligation to explain it.

I questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the perceived political bias that exists within the big tech community and how that might affect their companies’ actions when it comes to suppressing or amplifying certain online content. I pressed them on whether or not they believed they were legitimate referees when it comes to political speech on social media platforms. In my opinion, it’s not up to them to make those kinds of decisions, especially when it can have an effect on our democracy.

If you were an early adopter of social media, you’ve seen online platforms come, go, and evolve over the years. At their outset, platforms were comprised of a simple, sequential stream of user-generated content – pictures of your lunch or dinner, a status update on your weekend plans, or an article about a hot new restaurant opening downtown. In many cases, a dial-up internet connection and desktop computer were an integral part of logging on, scrolling, and posting. 

Fast forward to today. Things have changed a bit, to say the least. Now you can access social media from nearly every corner of the planet (even from outer space) and from nearly any device with an internet connection: phones, tablets, watches, TVs, computers, and so on. And with the advancement of 5G wireless broadband technology, something I’ve fought hard for in Congress, you can access information faster than ever before. 

Access and availability aren’t the only things that have changed. Big tech leaders like Zuckerberg, Dorsey, and Pichai are now some of the most powerful people in the world because they, in many ways, shape and control the content that social media users see and consume online. They’ve developed high-powered, opaque algorithms – contained within a black box of sorts – that learn online behavior and deliver customized results based on what we search, see, and share online. How they do it is largely unknown, which is one of the reasons why they recently testified before Congress.

Some platforms have gone a step further – beyond delivering customized results and content – and have appeared to act as the arbiters of truth by moderating and censoring user-generated political content – political speech, essentially. Whether or not these companies believe they’re acting as a referee, suppression of people’s political speech is occurring. This kind of behavior is not what Congress envisioned when it crafted certain laws during the infancy of the internet, like when it created a liability shield that helped these companies grow. So, as social media platforms continue to evolve, so too must the laws that govern them.

As the former chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and the current chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, this issue is very important to me. I’ve held multiple hearings on this topic over the years and have introduced several bipartisan pieces of legislation that would help strengthen online transparency and accountability.

In June, I introduced the bipartisan Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act, or PACT Act. It would require internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter to make quarterly reports to the public outlining material they’ve removed from their sites or chosen to deemphasize. Sites would also be required to provide an easily digestible disclosure of their content moderation practices for users. And, importantly, they would be required to explain their decisions to remove material to consumers. They would need to create an appeals process for users, too.

There’s a growing bipartisan consensus that it’s time to shed greater light on these secretive processes. I will continue to be a tireless advocate for the American people who, again, deserve to know how their information is being treated by big tech. This hearing is not the last you’ve heard from Congress on this issue. In many ways, we’re just getting started.