Since no one quite knows what breaking up big tech would look like, the baby steps of regulating internet titans like Google and Facebook are far easier to imagine.
On Monday, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced a bill that would force transparency on companies that trade in user data. The bill, known as the Dashboard Act (Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broader Oversight and Regulations on Data), would affect tech platforms with more than 100 million monthly users, defining these companies as “commercial data operators.” Companies over that monthly user threshold would be required to tell users once every 90 days what types of data they collect as well as disclose that data’s monetary value.
Those companies would also be required to report the total value of user data collected on an annual basis, including disclosures around third-party relationships. As part of the disclosure, tech platforms would be forced to provide the opportunity for users to delete all of parts of their data, “including any uses not directly related to the online service for which the data was originally collected.” Companies that refuse to comply would face penalties from the FTC.
“For years, social media companies have told consumers that their products are free to the user. But that’s not true—you are paying with your data instead of your wallet,” Warner said.
“These ‘free’ products track everything we do so tech companies can sell our information to the highest bidder and use it to target us with creepy ads,” Sen. Hawley echoed in a press release. “Even worse, tech companies do their best to hide how much consumer data is worth and to whom it is sold.”
Warner and Hawley contend that the bill would help the Securities and Exchange Commission craft methods for assessing the value of user data on tech platforms across varying business models.
For its part, big tech seemed cool on the idea of these specific disclosures, though not altogether uncooperative—yet.
On Monday, the Internet Association, the lobbying group representing most of the platforms targeted by such legislation, said that it was “encouraged” by lawmaker interest in consumer privacy, though would clearly prefer those regulations to be broader rather than laser focused on big tech.
“The internet industry supports a comprehensive, economy-wide federal privacy law that covers all companies—from social media sites to local grocery stores to data brokers—to give consumers the protections and rights they need to take full control of the data they provide to companies,” Internet Association President Michael Beckerman said in a statement on the bill.
As far as threats on the horizon go, the Dashboard Act is pretty tame. Last week, Hawley introduced a very different bill to wield against big tech, though one with a far less coherent solution for tempering the industry’s power. That bill, dubbed the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, seeks to sever internet companies from a critical legal provision known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. If Hawley’s new bipartisan legislation with Warner is a fairly common-sense step down the center, his own bill would unravel the internet as we know it—throwing the baby out with big tech’s bath water and then some.