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After a Year of Focus on Big Tech’s Harms, Why We’re Still Waiting on Reform

7 minute read

In the year since whistleblower Frances Haugen alleged that Facebook and Instagram knowingly downplayed how their products harm young people, stoke division, and weaken democracy, U.S. lawmakers have advanced a flurry of legislative proposals aimed at regulating social media and the tech sector as a whole.

But despite hours of hearings and testimony, none of the measures have been signed into law. Many of the proposals are caught in the debate over whether the government can regulate how platforms deal with harmful content or misinformation. The main reason, technology experts say, is America’s strong free speech laws, which are unlike any in the world.

Instead, the biggest changes since last year may be in the minds of consumers, who now are more skeptical than ever of Big Tech.

“We’ve had what people are now calling a ‘techlash’ against this idea that social media is always a good thing and is part of the world getting better and better,” says Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor of public policy, communication, and information at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The Haugen effect

The Facebook Papers revealed thousands of pages of leaked internal company research detailing how Facebook (now rebranded to Meta) operated, including how its algorithm fostered anger to drive engagement. The documents were disclosed by Haugen to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission before being provided to Congress in redacted form. They also formed the basis for the Wall Street Journal’s “Facebook Files” series, which began publishing on Sept. 13, 2021.

In the 12 months since the Journal published the first news story based on Haugen’s leaks and shook up the tech sector, there has been an unprecedented push to curb the industry’s power. Congress held a series of hearings on social media’s impact on users and society and advanced a number of bills aimed at cracking down on problems ranging from privacy to child online safety to competition.

Just last week, the White House released six principles for holding major U.S. tech companies accountable and said it was encouraged to see bipartisan interest in Congress to rein in some of the country’s biggest tech companies.

A Twitter whistleblower, Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, has also since come forward to allege that top Twitter executives endangered national security through “egregious deficiencies” in privacy and security. He began testifying before Congress on Tuesday—just as Haugen did last fall.

Meanwhile, Meta has made some changes to its platforms, including adding parental controls to Instagram. But it has also, according to Haugen, “further dissolved” its election integrity efforts and “invested less and less” in responsible AI. Earlier this month, Meta reportedly disbanded its Responsible Innovation team, a group of engineers, ethicists, and others who were put in place to address potential downsides of the company’s products.

The need for reform is made more urgent by the fact that, despite distrusting social media companies, consumers haven’t really altered the way they use their platforms, says Libby Hemphill, an expert on social media and hate speech at the University of Michigan School of Information.

“Haugen’s revelations made consumers more skeptical, but they didn’t actually change consumer behavior. Not even for a minute,” she says.

Obstacles to reform

Zuckerman says that the U.S. has especially strong protections for free speech—and social media platforms host millions and millions of posts, messages, news reports, and videos that qualify as “speech.” That makes these platforms difficult to regulate.

Zuckerman says that when lawmakers try to legislate against mis- and disinformation, it inherently raises questions about who gets to decide what people can and cannot say. “You’re either asking the government to have some control over what is allowable speech, or you’re taking a company and putting it in the very powerful position of becoming an arbiter of speech,” he says. “And neither of those is really comfortable within the U.S. constitutional tradition.”

Free speech laws are a tool that tech companies leverage to get what they want, says Kenneth Joseph, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Buffalo. “That’s due to the vagueness of the concept of free speech, who gets it, and why they should get it,” he says.

Despite pushback from tech lobbies, there is one high-profile antitrust proposal, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICO), that is just a few steps away from becoming law. The bill would prevent dominant platforms like Google, Amazon, and Meta from abusing their market power, and giving preference to their own services over those of their competitors. It could prevent Google, for example, from having its own travel recommendations appear at the top of search results.

Zuckerman says AICO has gained the most ground of any of the tech reform bills because it’s less politically charged and focuses instead on fair business practices.

“In the U.S., [business] is a place where we tend to be a lot more comfortable with the idea that we might intervene,” he says. “[AICO] isn’t just going straight after questions of speech.”

But it’s also difficult to separate antitrust reform from other related concerns in the tech world, says Hemphill. “It’s hard to disentangle these issues in a way where you could pull various policy levers that would have an impact on one area without having too much negative impact on another,” she says.

The U.S. dilemma

Even with bipartisan support, AICO may not become law. Some advocates have voiced concern that if the bill doesn’t pass ahead of the midterms, or at least before control of the House potentially changes, it could die. Other bills that hope to regulate tech companies are in the same boat.

“We tend to have this incredibly narrow window, usually the first two years of a presidential term, where we expect that progress can happen,” Zuckerman says.

This doesn’t bode well for government-led tech reform in the U.S.

But in the European Union (EU), another major tech hub, things are different. “There’s a decent chance that Washington is once again going to grind to a halt. But that doesn’t mean that governments aren’t trying to find ways to make social media companies behave better,” he says.

Zuckerman says there is landmark legislation nearing approval in the EU that could bring major tech companies to heel by imposing higher standards for transparency around content moderation. ”The principles behind these proposals are really promising,” he says.

Big Tech reform could also turn out to be a double-edged sword, says Josephs, noting that while social media has harmed society in many ways, it’s also been beneficial.

“We can think about regulation writ large and say that’s probably, on balance, a good thing,” he says. “But depending on who’s in power and what those regulations ultimately say, there can be a downside to it as well.”

Regardless of what happens in the U.S., Zuckerman says, Haugen’s revelations have helped to crystallize a conversation about the harms of social media that started in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, when misinformation ran rampant, he says: “The response has basically been to say, maybe it’s time to be really skeptical about these platforms.”

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com