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Sen. Mark Warner on breaking up Facebook and Congress’ plan to regulate tech

‘Every time we interact with Facebook… we make them more powerful’

Photography by Erin Schaff

For the past two years, Silicon Valley has faced a reckoning in Congress, but there’s been no matching push for regulation. While Mark Zuckerberg has been called before Congress and the inner workings of the tech industry have been put under a microscope, no major federal legislation has been passed, leaving some to wonder whether the US government will step in at all. Over the summer, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) put out the most comprehensive plan yet for how Congress might regulate Big Tech: his white paper laid out 20 different suggestions, ranging from labeling bots to implementing broader rules like those in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It was the most comprehensive effort by any lawmaker, and with it, Warner positioned himself as a key voice in the debate over regulating the tech industry.

On October 23rd, The Verge met with Warner at his office on Capitol Hill. For someone with eyes dead-set on the Valley, his office feels far more rural. Photos line the walls with landscapes from Virginia, and there’s a framed photo in the waiting area of the senator singing and playing the banjo alongside his colleague, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). On a bookshelf, tech industry awards, like one from Symantec, sit alongside novelty trinkets, like a wooden nameplate with “Sen. Mark Warner (VA)” etched in Comic Sans.

“I had seen very little evidence from the companies that they were going to take this seriously”

He was excited, gathering his jacket from his desk chair, smiling wide as he discussed where to sit. With every point he made, whether on antitrust or privacy, his arms flailed above his head, as if he were talking to a full crowd on the Senate floor.

Warner has a history that sets him apart from many of his fellow lawmakers, and that gives him an insider’s understanding of the tech industry. Before entering politics, he spent years in venture capital with a focus in telecommunications, and he founded his own firm, Columbia Capital. “That kind of opened my eyes to disruptive technology,” he said. After working in the private sector through the ‘80s, Warner decided to pursue his collegiate interest in politics, and in 2002, he became governor of Virginia where he extended broadband internet to rural areas and brought more tech jobs to the state.

In 2008, after his stint in state government, Warner won a bid for the Senate. In DC, he focused primarily on business, serving on the Senate Commerce Committee. His friends in venture capital thought he’d immediately position himself as the senator who is tough on tech, but it wasn’t until the 2016 election cycle that his background in the industry became central to his political career.

He says the white paper succeeded in heating up the conversation around regulation and told The Verge what to expect from Congress next.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You started your career in the Senate as a business and commerce guy, even with your background in tech. What really drove you to finally take charge with this white paper?

You know, I was mad at first that the Senate Intelligence Committee wasn’t getting Zuckerberg when he came, and then I was glad because we didn’t have to look as ignorant as some members on the other committees. But it also became evident to me that a couple things were happening. One, the traditional American lead on technology policy was not taking place, because we’d had our hands off. The Democrats were enamored with these companies. The Republicans don’t normally want regulation to start with, so they had this neutral zone that they were in. And you had the Europeans particularly start to move on privacy, and you had some activity in California.

“There were no restraints on Facebook from doing this”

What hit me was that I had seen very little evidence from the companies that they were going to take this really seriously. What I thought I could do was, could I put out, rather than a bill, a set of ideas, put it into the idea-sphere that would allow people to pick and choose from this menu of options? What are the ways to think about regulation?

Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal from earlier this year felt like the culmination of all of these privacy concerns — if not for the Senate, then for the American public. It brought privacy policy into a more personal space for the average American. Do you think the problem was mainly that Cambridge Analytica was misusing the data or that Facebook was being irresponsible with it?

I think it was joint. It was two different companies taking advantage of a system — a system that had no rules and regulations. There were no restraints on Facebook from doing this. And from Cambridge Analytica, you at least had a group that was the poster child for being sleazy.

“Every time we interact with Facebook... we make them more powerful”

In your white paper, something you didn’t bring up was breaking up Facebook. Why didn’t you include that?

I’ve thought about that. I think in many ways, these companies have as much power, if not more power, than the largest enterprises in the beginning of the 20th century, when you have the oil companies and other monopolies. It was the whole Teddy Roosevelt trust-buster era. That avenue of breakup is one of the options. Often people make the analogy that data is the new oil. Well, in the old oil company, every time you used oil, you at least depleted the company’s reserve. The difference with these kinds of enterprises is that every time we interact with Google, every time we interact with Facebook, we give them more oil. We make them more powerful. We make it even harder for a new competitor to come into the marketplace.

I see breakup as more of a last resort. Also, we could look at companies more on a domestic scene. The caution is, if we were to start with the breakup of Facebook and Google, what would we do with Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent? In a world-based economy, you can’t look at these only on a national basis. My fear is that the Chinese companies, which are frankly on a growth rate even faster than Facebook, Google, and Twitter’s growth, don’t have any of the constraints of the other companies.

I guess the other argument is to nationalize these companies. How do you feel about that?

“You’re basically relying on the good will of Facebook”

That one has no appeal to me. I’m a Democrat and I believe in government rule, but the idea that you’re going to turn these into government-controlled entities would squeeze out innovation and make them more cautious. It’s hard for me to point to an example, even in European countries, where they’ve nationalized a service and that’s made the service better or more efficient.

Something we’ve been seeing a lot with Facebook and Twitter is that they’ve been releasing datasets for researchers. Would you suggest forcing companies to release data for third-party research?

That was one of our ideas. There’s this enormous reaction against government. I think one of the great ironies is that the American public is so afraid of the government having personal information about us, or spy services, or whatever. Yet an active Facebook or Google user, those companies know so much more about you as an individual than the US government knows. It’s just weird that we don’t view our personal information residing in those companies as being more vulnerable. At least in the government, there are protections put in place. There’s no such protections in the companies. So one of the ideas that’s in the white paper is encouraging and incentivizing or regulating in a way that data is anonymized, but giving the independent researchers the ability to look at dark patterns. This extends to algorithms that could influence behavior on either end of the political spectrum.

What about the Honest Ads Act? It seemed that with the threat of that bill looming, Facebook decided to release a public ads database on its own. Do you think that legislation is necessary now that we’re seeing the industry reacting?

It’s absolutely still necessary. Because you’re basically relying on the good will of Facebook to continue to release. And what they’ve done is they’ve released information that is candidate-specific, but if you turn on the TV right now many of the ads you’ll see won’t mention a candidate. They’ll say, “vote against the candidate who is not for strong immigration rules,” or “vote against a candidate that doesn’t believe in protecting our planet.” So they’ve not really done a whole lot around issue ads, and while you’ve got Facebook and Twitter that have made movement into this area, Google has moved some, a little bit but not too much. This is low-hanging fruit. The absurdity that we haven’t been able to get this passed is just mind-boggling. The notion that we think it’s required if you put an ad on TV, you’ve got to say who’s behind it, but you put the same exact ad on the internet and you don’t have any responsibility to disclose, that’s why people get so frustrated with the political system.

What have the challenges been then?

The challenges have been that the majority leader of the Senate doesn’t want to do anything on campaign finance reform. The thing is, if it got to the floor, it would get 95 votes.

“Even with the First Amendment, you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater”

How do you juggle anonymity on the internet with the location and identity disclosures that would be included in Honest Ads Act?

What I’ve thought about on identity validation is the notion of the internet, at first, that it was this great, open town square where everyone could be anonymous. And I think if you’re a female journalist in Egypt, you want that anonymity, but I’m not sure we can continue with total anonymity. So there are gradations that we could do.

So for example, in one of the areas where I’ve been talking to the companies, where other senators and everyone tends to agree, is, should you know when you’re being communicated with by a human being versus a bot? Secondly, should you have that ability to geopost, so if you say you’re posting from Santa Barbara, but you’re posting from St. Petersburg, should something come up? Again, not getting rid of the post, but just saying, “Warning, warning,” this is not really from here. Other countries have done this, like in Estonia, you can’t be anonymous on the web because they have so much Russian interference, and there may be a world where, in a sense, you have two internets. Where you’ve got the wild, worldly internet, where if you want to go on the dark web anonymously, you can, but if you’re going to do banking, business, or retail or other areas, you’re going to have to validate your identity. And that could be done biometrically as well as through a passcode. But that whole issue of identity makes sense. This is something I think we need to explore.

I’m wondering if you think people have become less absolutist about the First Amendment when it comes to the internet and content moderation?

Even with the First Amendment, you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Even with the First Amendment, you can’t go on Facebook and be able to post something that says, “Kill your neighbor if they’re Muslim.” Which is happening in Burma, where the Myanmar government is telling their neighbors to go kill the Rohingya. Sheryl Sandberg said there is both a moral and legal obligation. I think we ought to think about that.

In October, Bloomberg published a report claiming that Chinese spies were able to inject malicious microchips into servers belonging to companies like Apple and Amazon. According to the report, the computer networks to these companies were compromised by the Chinese government. What are your thoughts on this spy chip story?

Bloomberg is a responsible organization, but we have seen no evidence that that story is true. The companies have uniformly denied it and the American government has denied it. We have not seen that evidence. I’d love to hear more from Bloomberg, but I have to say that the possibility that that story could be true ought to scare the heck out of everybody and ought to make us recognize that, particularly vis-a-vis China, we’ve been asleep at the switch. We’ve been so focused on terrorism with North Korea and Iran not our near-pure adversaries like Russia and China, which are pure adversaries in cyber and misinformation, we’ve not been alert and aware enough.

Lastly, this year has felt as though lawmakers have just been marking their territory when it comes to regulating these companies. There have been hearings, calls for investigations, and a few bills, but not much movement. Do you think there will be more concrete action next year?

There will definitely be more action next year. I want to say that one of the things I’m trying to do by doing this white paper is to tell everybody, “Hey, come on in. I’d love to work with you on these things.” What I don’t want is this area to become partisan. This is a lot more future-past than it is conservative-liberal. So if you want to get stuff done, you gotta build broader coalitions.