Social Media Platforms to Face New Transparency Requirements Under Legislation Introduced

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Several Senators are looking to improve transparency of social media platforms and holding them accountable regarding their algorithms. U.S. Senator Chris Coons, one of the lawmakers introducing the legislation, says, “Social media platforms shape the information that billions of people across the globe consume every day. But right now, there is a dangerous lack of transparency about how these platforms impact our children, families, society, or national security.” Under the legislation, platforms would have to proactively make certain information available to researchers or the public on an ongoing basis, such as:


• A comprehensive ad library;
• Statistics about content moderation;
• Data about viral content; and
• Descriptions of a platform’s ranking and recommendation algorithms.

Additional Information from the Press Office of Senator Chris Coons:

U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, and Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Dr. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) today introduced the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act (PATA), their bipartisan bill to increase transparency around social media companies. The formal introduction follows the release of a discussion draft last December. 

“Social media platforms shape the information that billions of people across the globe consume every day. But right now, there is a dangerous lack of transparency about how these platforms impact our children, families, society, or national security,” said Senator Coons. “Does TikTok promote or suppress posts in the Chinese Communist Party’s interest? Do platforms recommend harmful or addictive content to vulnerable users? The bipartisan Platform Accountability and Transparency Act would help answer questions like these by requiring social media companies to share data with the public and researchers so that we can look under the hood and finally see a clear picture about the effects these platforms have on all of our lives.”

“I have a number of concerns about Big Tech — from facilitating sex trafficking to burying content about the origins of COVID-19 — and I want to ensure that any response by Congress is effective in addressing those concerns,” said Senator Portman. “This bipartisan legislation will increase transparency around Big Tech practices and give policymakers the high-quality, well-vetted information we need to do our job most effectively.”

“For too long, social media companies have said: ‘just trust us,’ while putting their profits ahead of consumers’ safety, privacy, and wellbeing. It’s time to stop admiring the problem and instead start holding these platforms accountable for the dangerous lack of transparency behind their algorithms,” said Senator Klobuchar. “Our bipartisan legislation will do just that, ensuring independent researchers can access platform data and understand the type of information these companies are collecting on their users.”

“We are learning the extent Big Tech companies will go when no one can shine a light on what they are doing. Congress needs to have the information to hold these companies accountable. Our bill increases transparency into data collection by social media companies,” said Dr. Cassidy. 

Following the release of the discussion draft, The Washington Post editorial board endorsed PATA as a “step toward solving our social media woes” that would provide “safe harbor not only to participating academics but also compliant companies and [mandate] the creation of privacy and cybersecurity standards for the process.”

Background:

PATA is a multipronged bill that creates new mechanisms to increase transparency around social media companies’ internal data:

  • Under PATA, independent researchers would be able to submit proposals to the National Science Foundation, an independent agency designed to promote the progress of science by approving research and development proposals from researchers across the sciences. If the requests are approved, social media companies would be required to provide the necessary data subject to privacy protections.
    • Companies that fail to comply would be subject to enforcement from the Federal Trade Commission and face the potential loss of immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  
  • Additionally, the bill would require that platforms proactively make certain information available to researchers or the public on an ongoing basis, such as:
    • A comprehensive ad library;
    • Statistics about content moderation;
    • Data about viral content; and
    • Descriptions of a platform’s ranking and recommendation algorithms.
  • The proposal would also protect researchers from legal liability that may arise from automatically collecting public-facing platform information if they comply with various privacy safeguards. 

The text of the bill is available here. A section-by-section summary of the bill is available here.


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