Across the world, lawmakers are writing the new rules for the Internet. In Europe, India, Australia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, laws are being proposed that govern everything from privacy and content to the size and competitiveness of tech companies and how data is held, shared and used at scale.
That’s a good thing – regulation is late. For a long time, many of these important issues were left for private companies to deal with on their own. Far from resisting regulation, Facebook has advocated this in a number of areas for some time now.
President Biden has called for a global coalition of “tech democracies,” but efforts to regulate technology in Washington have stalled. Much of the domestic debate is devoted to whether the big tech companies should be broken up, but not about the core societal issues at hand — such as rules around privacy, security, content and data sharing — that can only be fixed through regulation.
This is a pivotal moment. As policy makers begin to craft laws, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are contradictory visions of what the Internet should be. American businesses and American values such as freedom of expression, transparency, accountability, and encouragement of innovation and entrepreneurship have shaped the open, accessible Internet and the world we use today. But these values cannot be taken for granted.
The Chinese Internet model – detached from the wider Internet and subject to widespread surveillance – presents a danger 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 moves to crack down on US companies and data sharing. The seamless flow of data is the lifeblood of the open internet. But European court rulings have cast doubt on data transfers between the European Union and the United States. Protecting our economies by ensuring the free flow of data between the European Union and the United States must 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 direct social media platforms to track and remove content, including private messages.
The United States risks becoming a country that exports amazing technologies, but fails to export its values. To make progress, we need to break the deadlock in the capital. While there are fundamental differences between Democrats and Republicans, no one wants the status quo and there is much on both sides.
I’m from outside 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 have naturally led the centre-left party into a constructive governance arrangement with the centre-right party. It worked because we focused on making progress on the things we agreed on.
Here are four areas in which I believe progress can be made quickly through a bipartisan approach.
First, reform Section 230. People of all political beliefs want large corporations to take responsibility for combating illegal content and activity on their platforms. And when they remove harmful content, people want them to do so fairly and transparently. Congress can start there.
Platforms should be given ongoing protection from liability for the content they upload only if they can demonstrate that they have robust practices in place to quickly identify and remove illegal content. While it would be impractical to hold them accountable if a certain piece of content evaded detection – there are billions of posts every day – they should be required to follow industry best practices. Congress could also bring more transparency, accountability, and oversight to the processes by which large Internet companies set and enforce rules about what users can do or say about their services.
Second, Congress can do more to guard against influence processes. Companies can and do take steps to crack down on organized networks that seek to mislead people and undermine public trust. But Congress can create a deterrent that no industrial effort can match. Our teams have published recommended principles for regulation in this area, with a focus on charging the people behind these campaigns, and creating clarity on the boundaries between deception and advocacy. Congress can act now to enforce statute transparency, enable legal sharing of information and impose responsibility directly on the people and organizations behind malicious influence operations. Congress can also update the rules around the use of social media in elections — rules that haven’t materially changed to account for the internet age. For example, we have supported organizations such as the Honest Advertising Act and the Deterrence Act to prevent election interference.
Third, Congress can break the deadlock over federal privacy legislation. The United States watches from the sidelines while others write a global playbook about privacy, with major implications for American values, competitiveness, and national security. But there are plenty of Democrats and Republicans who agree on that. By looking for a reasonable middle ground, Congress can make real progress, for example by creating strong regulatory enforcement, and giving companies the certainty to act.
Fourth, Congress should establish clear rules on data portability to better enable people to move their data between services and “vote with their feet.” It can also create rules that govern how platforms share data for the greater good. As society grapples with how to tackle disinformation, harmful content, and increasing polarization, Facebook’s research can provide insights that help design evidence-based solutions. But to do that, there needs to be a clear regulatory framework for data research that preserves individual privacy.
Finally, to address these issues and more, the United States could create a new digital regulator. The new regulator will not only be able to navigate the competing trade-offs in the digital space, but will be able to join the dots between issues such as content, data, and economic impact — just as the FCC successfully exercises regulatory oversight across communications and media.
By focusing on areas where there is agreement on both sides, Congress can break the deadlock and create the most comprehensive Internet legislation in a generation. By doing so, he can help preserve American values at the heart of the global internet.
Nick Clegg is the Vice President of Global Affairs at Facebook, a former Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and a former Member of the European Parliament.