Is this Congress’s best shot to open up the ‘black box’ of social media?

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Below: An Amazon union leader plans to visit the White House this week, and a data broker is selling information about people who visit abortion clinics. First:

Is this Congress’s best shot to open up the ‘black box’ of social media?

For years, lawmakers have blanketed social media platforms with letters demanding information about how their products and the algorithms that power them work. But many of them say they still lack access to basic data needed to fully understand the tools — and how to regulate them.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) is spearheading a bipartisan push to change that by forcing tech companies to turn over crucial information about their services to researchers and the public, or face fresh liability threats if they don’t. 

Led by a trio of prominent dealmakers, the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act (PATA) marks one of Congress’s most significant efforts to date to shed light on what lawmakers often lament as the “black box” of social media. But it’s got a long way to go to become law.

I interviewed Coons this week about the proposal, which is set to be featured prominently at a hearing held by his Senate panel on Wednesday. Here are the highlights: 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the goal of the hearing and how are you hoping it can inform legislation?

This is an area where there’s a lot of heat but not enough light. And this bill is intended to be an enactable, bipartisan, reasonable measure that would move us forward in terms of the Congress and the public actually understanding what social media platforms know about the consequences and impact of their products, their services and the algorithms that drive them.

This is the way that I try to approach complex problems, which is first to better understand what the problem is, and to allow Congress to then have a real policy debate with concrete information, rather than what we’ve largely been trying to do, which is to regulate social media either from a partisan perspective or without enough information about how it actually works.

There have been a number of bipartisan bills related to social media accountability that haven’t advanced. What’s the path and timeline for trying to get this signed into law?

Frankly, I’m frustrated at how long it has taken to get this hearing. I had hoped we’d be doing this six months ago. Implicit in your question is that this Congress is almost over. We’ve got a bill that I believe we can after this hearing move forward with a broader range of co-sponsors.

I hope we can still move it forward in this Congress, but I recognize that getting this to the president’s desk this year is going to be an uphill climb.

The European Union is advancing transparency requirements under its landmark Digital Services Act. What do you make of that bill and how is it influencing talks in the U.S.?

For a long time, the E.U. has been ahead of the United States in terms of their data privacy regulations. That’s also creating an incentive [for] platforms to cooperate with us and to be more transparent, because bluntly, I think they’d rather see regulation here than simply have to comply with regulation there. Either way, the E.U. market is large enough that it will drive a lot of behavior by the platforms. 

But if the United States and the E.U. end up with harmonized standards, then I think we’re both providing a more predictable regulatory environment [and] also showing the sharp contrast between what we’re doing and what China and Russia are doing, and a dozen other authoritarian countries where individuals have really no rights at all to data privacy.

Some advocates argue that just passing transparency requirements isn’t enough. 

It may not be enough but it’s a good start. Of course this isn’t the answer to everything, but it’s an important next step.

Do you see this as complementing potential data privacy or competition regulations?

I think we’re largely trying to legislate based on anecdote and assumption. This would strengthen our ability to legislate based on actual knowledge and deep insight into what social media platforms are doing.

Former president Barack Obama gave your bill a shout out during a recent address on disinformation. Have you discussed the proposal with him, and what do you make of his remarks on this issue?

I appreciated former president Obama recognizing this is important legislation. I have not talked to him about this directly. 

Lawmakers in some states including California are taking up their own versions of this bill. Is this an area where you hope states take action, or should Congress take the lead?

Congress should be taking the lead on moving forward with a regulatory framework for social media, but bluntly, if Congress doesn’t, then states like California are going to take the initiative. 

What’s been the response from industry?

Generally positive, meaning they appreciate that we’ve consulted with them. Relatively few are excited about it, but they appreciate the way it’s been crafted compared to some other far more aggressive proposals. I think this is one they’re willing to work with Congress [on].

An Amazon union organizer will visit the White House on Thursday

Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls will meet with Vice President Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh alongside organizers from Starbucks and other firms, Reuters’s David Shepardson reports. Smalls also plans to testify at a Senate Budget Committee hearing Thursday that will examine whether Amazon and firms that violate labor laws should get federal contracts.

The meeting comes after pressure from Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Sanders last month called for President Biden to start inviting workers to the White House and “make it clear that he is on their side, and that he is going to do what he can to support labor organizing throughout this country,” my colleague Jeff Stein reported. One Amazon warehouse has voted to organize, while more than 40 Starbucks locations have voted to unionize. Both companies have spent millions of dollars to try to stop unionization efforts.

Data broker sells information about abortion clinic visitors

Motherboard purchased a week’s worth of location data about more than 600 U.S. Planned Parenthood locations from data broker SafeGraph for around $160, Motherboard’s Joseph Cox reports. Some of those Planned Parenthood clinics offer abortions.

The report came after Politico published a leaked draft of a majority Supreme Court decision to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that affirmed abortion rights. 

While the data doesn’t include names of users, such data has been used in the past to identify individuals by analyzing patterns of movement and behavior. Planned Parenthood and SafeGraph didn’t respond to requests for comment from Motherboard.

Musk floats making Twitter a publicly traded company — again

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk told potential investors that he is planning an initial public offering for Twitter as soon as three years from buying the company, the Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo and Eliot Brown report.

“Private-equity firms often take companies private with an eye toward fixing them up outside of the spotlight and then taking them public again within five years or so,” they write. “Musk’s signal that he plans to do something similar could help assure potential investors that he would work quickly to improve Twitter’s business operations and profitability.”

Musk hasn’t outlined his plans for Twitter in detail, though he has teased some potential features. On Wednesday, he tweeted that the platform would “always be free for casual users,” but he also floated a “slight cost for commercial/government users.”

Twitter announced Twitter Circle, which lets users share tweets with up to 150 people. Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Stephen Fowler:

Our colleague, Taylor Lorenz:

China cracked down on Big Tech companies. Now it needs them (Bloomberg)

LinkedIn settles with U.S. over alleged pay discrimination (Associated Press)

First US Apple Store union election set for June 2nd in Atlanta (The Verge)

Elon Musk’s Texas SpaceX site draws concern over missing shorebirds (Bloomberg)

Senator calls on Biden to fill OSTP leadership role (NextGov)

CDC tracked millions of phones to see if Americans followed covid lockdown orders (Motherboard)

Brands should force Twitter to uphold content policies under Musk, advocacy groups say (CNN)

  • Longtime Senate Judiciary Committee staffer Scott Wilson has joined Spotify as director for government affairs, LegiStorm reports.
  • CrowdTangle founder Brandon Silverman and other experts testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee panel’s hearing on platform transparency today at 2 p.m.
  • Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testifies before the Senate Homeland Security Committee today at 2:30 p.m. He is expected to be pressed on DHS’s Disinformation Governance Board.
  • Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls testifies at a Senate Budget Committee hearing on whether companies that violate labor laws should get federal contracts Thursday at 11 a.m.

Thats all for today — thank you so much for joining us! Make sure to tell others to subscribe to The Technology 202 here. Get in touch with tips, feedback or greetings on Twitter or email

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