Since 2016, everything that social media companies have done has been “either a bizarre idea or not really doing much of anything that’s actually gonna help people.”
So says Senator Ron Wyden, the senior U.S. Senator from Oregon — a Democrat with a self-proclaimed “libertarian streak” and the guest on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. As one of the more tech-savvy members of Congress, he’s a proponent of new legislation that will regulate voting machine companies and data firms such as Cambridge Analytica, but also believes existing laws have given platforms like Twitter more power than they have deigned to use.
“I think what the Alex Jones case shows, we’re gonna really be looking at what the consequences are for just leaving common decency in the dust,” Wyden told Recode’s Kara Swisher. “... What I’m gonna be trying to do in my legislation is to really lay out what the consequences are when somebody who is a bad actor, somebody who really doesn’t meet the decency principles that reflect our values, if that bad actor blows by the bounds of common decency, I think you gotta have a way to make sure that stuff is taken down.”
“If we were talking about really horrible pornography, I think they would have moved pretty quickly to deal with it,” he added. “I think it’s also worth noting that, with respect to Alex Jones, there are probably a thousand accounts out there that are as bad as Alex Jones.”
Below, we’ve shared an edited transcript of Kara’s conversation with Senator Wyden. You can read a full transcript of the interview here.
The early days of the internet
So we met a long, long time ago in the AOL days, in the ’90s, if you recall.
I remember. And you know what’s striking about it, back then those early ISPs, for example, I was a big defender of those early ISPs because they were the people that we really thought connected the little guy to the internet.
Now, as has been the case with so much of the field, it’s dominated by the big guys.
There was the Communications Decency Act, there was all kinds of things that you were involved in. You were one of the few Congress people that understood tech or had at least some insight. What got you interested in tech?
When I got to the Senate, the only person who really knew how to use a computer was Pat Leahy. And I said, “This is a natural for us, small state in the west, in between California and Washington. We can really excel in a whole host of areas in technology.”
And what I found was a lot of things people were looking at doing either called for using brick-and-mortar kind of approaches for this whole new digital space or were presenting a cure worse than the problem. And, for example, the way we got into Section 230, which I think now is the foundation of internet jurisprudence, is people said, “Hey, these websites and blogs, people are going to get held personally liable for something posted on the site.”
And I said, “I don’t know everything about it,” but I said, “Nobody’s going to invest in social media.” So we came up with an approach, Section 230, that was about creating a shield, so as to not have these early entrepreneurs, you know, clobbered by frivolous stuff. But also a sword to deal with irresponsible conduct. And we can stop there because part of the reason the companies are in so much trouble is that they haven’t been using the sword.
You know, back then there was a lot of innovation — of course, there still is. But big tech today seems, primarily, about clicks, monopolies and then monetizing at all costs. And I think that’s why they’re in a lot of trouble.
Cambridge Analytica and election security
The broader picture is that these companies, they grew enormous through all kinds of help and their own innovation. And then when they get there, they don’t want to take the responsibility. You know that’s been my drum I’ve been beating on, the responsibilities that they have. Let’s start with each of the things. Before we get to Alex Jones, can we get to Cambridge Analytica and election security first, if you don’t mind?
Yeah! This really drove home what the consequences are of a private company — Facebook — not being responsible. You know, people had their rights violated, we continue to find out how users are being harmed as a result of all the things that came out post-Cambridge Analytica.
But also, it is a huge issue as it relates to election security. I have a major piece of legislation now, PAVE, would require paper ballots and risk-limiting audits. But if you have a Cambridge Analytica, it’s really bad for national security because people can take all that information and use it to try to target constituencies.
Do you think it’s because these internet companies weren’t regulated, that you all should have anticipated that this was the possibility? Or that you’re now sort of cleaning up afterwards?
My sense is that in those kind of early days — and we all remember the excitement of it — net companies were doing important work in health care, in education, in finding jobs. People were essentially asleep at the switch, as it related to the relationship between the sword and the shield. What I tell the companies now — and by the way, the companies don’t come around very much to people like me anymore. In the beginning, they always did but right now they’re saying, “Hey, Ron’s really going to take us on.” And I’ve told them point blank I said, “Guys, if you don’t use the sword, you are going to lose the shield.”
Right, okay. So with election security, what is happening now in Congress? And what is the possibility that anything is going to actually pass?
Well, what I’m doing is I’m pulling out all the stops. Taking on these voting machine companies that have behaved incredibly irresponsibly. And they’re responsible for essentially teeing up the votes for at least 40 million people, and perhaps more. And to give you an idea, because you’re a Times contributor, how irresponsible they are: The major voting machine company, ES&S, lied to the New York Times about a crucial question. We had begun picking up reports that they had installed remote access software in their products.
So they could deal with it, right?
And what I said is, “That is about the most irresponsible thing you can do in cybersecurity. The only thing that’d actually be worse is leaving the ballot boxes on the street corner in Moscow.” They lied to the New York Times about them doing it. They said they hadn’t, then they had to admit they did. And the voting machine companies have basically been above the law. If I had my way — and I don’t have the power now in the Senate — we’d subpoena ’em and we’d put them under oath to talk about what they’re doing, because I think that this is really undermining our democracy.
Alex Jones and policing the internet
And what is the responsibility of the social media companies? What kind of pressure can you put on them to ... because essentially, these were not hacked. With machines, you’re talking about the possibility of hacking. In this case, these platforms were used for exactly the way they were built. They weren’t particularly hacked.
Yeah. The social media companies basically got outed in 2016. And since then, practically every single thing they’ve done has been either a bizarre idea or not really doing much of anything that’s actually gonna help people.
So tell me about that.
I mean, there is in this dark period some things we can actually look to. I’m trying to follow the opportunities for downranking because I think that might create a light at the end of the tunnel. But unless these guys are gonna be serious about using the part of 230 to get after people who behave irresponsibly, then I think they are looking at the changes they aren’t gonna like.
What I wanna see is, I wanna see the companies step up. And that’s why I mentioned Alex Jones, because ... when you have somebody who calls the parents of murdered kids liars, then claims that their kids don’t exist, then you have blown past the bounds of common decency, and platforms need to take the slime down. The same is true in terms of the election.
Let’s talk about the Alex Jones thing in more detail. Initially, they were very much against doing anything about it. I had podcasts with Mark Zuckerberg where he talked about allowing this stuff to go on. Then they made a switch, removing Alex Jones from the platform. So did Google, so did around YouTube, so did others. Twitter has held firm. Talk to me about the difficulties of dealing with stuff like that. Because there’s First Amendment issues, then there’s not freedom from consequence of what you say, too.
Well, I think what the Alex Jones case shows, we’re gonna really be looking at what the consequences are for just leaving common decency in the dust. That to me — and I’ll have some more to say about it, as you know I’m working on a privacy bill. I think that the heart of it has gotta be citizens controlling their private data, I think there’s gotta be real transparency, there’s gotta be consequences for misusing someone’s data. But this goes right to the heart of the real value of Section 230.
I guess, if people wanna say, “You know, we oughta just have the government start dictating...” By the way, one of the most stunning aspects of the last couple of days is to see conservative politicians, people like Kevin McCarthy and Ted Cruz, they are essentially saying that the government should run private companies, the government should dictate to private companies what they’re doing. I’m sure it’s very popular with their base, but doesn’t happen to be the right thing. And I think that there’s a much better model that was bipartisan that really relates to what I call rights and responsibilities, that was what Section 230 ...
What rights do you think that they should have now? How do you assess their reaction to, just let’s use Alex Jones as the example, how do you access their reactions to him and the changing nature? I do think at some point Twitter is gonna throw him off the platform, my guess is they’re preparing that.
What I’ve been disappointed in is how long it took, and how they really are not looking at fleshing out a policy. What’s hard in this area is tech is so dominant in our life that it is sort of the ultimate in ad hoc policy making. Something goes on on Tuesday, Congress folks come back with their policy on Wednesday or Thursday, the history is that that’s usually not very good. That’s what leads us to SESTA and FOSTA and PIPA and SOPA and all these acronyms that were bad policies. What I’ve said to them in the few conversations we’ve had, we haven’t had many, is, “What you really wanna do is see if you can build around a core set of values.”
Yeah, I talked about that.
That’s what I was saying. I very much enjoyed your article where you said, “Hey, it’s not just about a bunch of laws, you can have a crate full of laws, if you don’t get your values right.” And so, what I’m gonna be trying to do in my legislation is to really lay out what the consequences are when somebody who is a bad actor, somebody who really doesn’t meet the decency principles that reflect our values, if that bad actor blows by the bounds of common decency, I think you gotta have a way to make sure that stuff is taken down.
So that’s a hornet’s nest with the people. The idea of what they take down, who decides. Why do you think they’re resistant to it? I know they’re resistant to being called media companies, media companies have responsibilities.
Yeah, individually odd monopolies, too, because there’s so many of them.
They are, they are monopolies, and these people that were innovators at the beginning and trying to give consumers a fair shake now seem to be interested in monetizing at all costs.
So, by the way, if we were talking about really horrible pornography, I think they would have moved pretty quickly to deal with it. I think it’s also worth noting that, with respect to Alex Jones, there are probably a thousand accounts out there that are as bad as Alex Jones.
Regulating tech companies
How do you then manage that from a government point of view when these companies have such enormous power and you don’t really want them to be making these decisions? At the same time, you want them to be responsibly monitoring their platforms.
Let me give you an example. Actually, I was coming over here juggling all the subjects, and I say here’s one I think Kara would be interested in. You know Backpage?
I’m somebody who spent a lot of time legislating against the abhorrent sex traffickers. You know how Backpage was essentially busted? They were busted under existing Section 230 law. The reason we had problems is because law enforcement didn’t move aggressively enough and quickly enough. And after a while everybody said, “Oh, we can’t do anything about it, let’s go pass this really flawed law, SESTA and FOSTA,” which in my view is gonna take the worse guys ...
Explain that for people who don’t know.
Yeah, this is basically the law that, in effect, lifts Section 230 and allows for the prosecution of sex traffickers. I think what it’s going to do is drive the really bad guys to the dark web. These are places where you can’t get to with a search engine.
And, by the way, when we had SESTA and FOSTA on the floor, I offered an amendment that said the focus ought to be to get more prosecutors, and some of the people who hollered the most on the Republican side about how terrible this was, they wouldn’t vote to deal with what the heart of the problem is, and that has been inadequate federal law enforcement.
Cybersecurity and tech leaders testifying
Right, enforcement. So, where do you ... With the companies coming to Congress, the last Mark Zuckerberg hearing was not the most illuminating, I think. I don’t know. What were your thoughts on that?
I think that that’s right.
I’m being kind.
Yeah. I’m not gonna criticize my colleagues, and ... You know, the point is these are really technical, detailed issues. I’ve brought some examples today, in terms of ... You know, cybersecurity. I mean, the government is just basically comatose in terms of cybersecurity.
I think it is a continual battle to try to take issues like these — which are very technical, probably aren’t known to lots of members of Congress — and say, “Hey, guys. This is why we really need some major cybersecurity reforms.” I mean, the Trump people, from a personnel standpoint, they’ve unilaterally disarmed. They got rid of their cybersecurity expert.
There’s new hearings coming up with Facebook, Google and Twitter. Are these gonna be any better or are these just show trials, essentially, that lead to nothing?
Well, I think they’re important hearings. I personally think that the Intelligence Committee has missed the single most important issue, which is the follow-the-money issues. Because what we’re supposed to be all about is counterintelligence, and following money is counterintelligence 101.
What happens if the Democrats win the House?
Senator Wyden, if the Democrats do take over the House, what do you imagine will happen? Besides millions of subpoenas going out.
Let me tell you what I’m working on. I want to make it clear ... In the new privacy bill that I’m working on, if you are misusing consumer data and harvesting people’s information wrongly, I want to come after you.
I want real transparency on how people’s data is being used, and I want consequences if a company loses or abuses somebody’s data.
So, what do you imagine ... You don’t think there’ll be more onerous regulations, or regulations at all? When you look at Europe, for example, they’re quite far down the road, compared to this country.
We’ve got to pass a privacy bill that ensures that people get to control their own data. They get real transparency. There are consequences. I want paper ballots and audits for the 2020 election. Look at what we’ve seen in the last couple of days. I said a month ago, a month or six weeks ago, that Donald Trump seemed to be on his way to creating an enemies list in terms of national security advisers. And I say that to your listeners, I disagreed with John Brennan on lots of stuff. I was the one who took him on when he spied on the Intelligence Committee’s files. But I think this idea that they’re moving to put together some kind of list is really ... It’s not just Richard Nixon, but it’s gonna compromise national security.
All right, so what else might be passed?
Well, I want election security. And I want to make sure that as we work through the 230 issues we don’t walk away from something that I think has been of great benefit to this country.
I want to get right this question of what happens in an Alex Jones case. It’s something I’m working on and I’m gonna put in my bill, to define what happens if you go beyond the boundaries of what I call our shared value of basic decency.
All right. Senator Wyden, thank you.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.