This op-ed was originally published in USA TODAY on August 1, 2018.
Do you ever stop to think about how much our world has changed just in the past few years?
Today, some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world — Google, Facebook and Twitter, to name a few — build and rely on technology that didn’t even exist a decade or two ago, dramatically transforming our society along the way.
As someone who was in the tech business longer than I’ve been in the Senate, I’m a big believer in the power of technology to improve people’s lives. I was living out of my car when I founded my first cell phone company. I later founded Nextel, and in the years since I’ve had a front row seat to the ways the phones in our pockets have changed the world.
But anyone who’s ever told their kids to put their cell phones away at dinner knows technological advances sometimes come with unintended consequences — and social media is no exception.
We need to learn from our internet failures
Over the past year and a half, Sen. Richard Burr and I have led the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan investigation into Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, uncovering the unprecedented ways Russia abused social media to divide Americans against each other and undermine our democratic process.
In many ways our intelligence community was caught off guard by this new threat. But with each new story about fake news, bots, trolls or Facebook’s mishandling of 87 million Americans’ private data, it has become even clearer that these social media companies were caught flat-footed — unable or unwilling to predict, detect or stop the abuse of their platforms.
Americans are increasingly expressing concern over how their data is being used, and whether they maintain control over their digital identities. As some of these companies have grown to the point of dominance, we’ve reached the point where one company’s mistake can have society-wide consequences.
I believe a national conversation about these issues is long overdue. The companies, the federal government, and individuals all share in the responsibility to make sure these great American technologies continue to work for the good of our county and its citizens.
>That conversation has to start with companies taking responsibility for their platforms and the potential for their abuse. Common-sense rules of the road for social media — like labeling bots and preventing the use of false identities and fake accounts — is a great place to start.
We also need to recognize that our every like, retweet, and search query leaves a trail of data unique to each American on the internet. We have not yet had a national debate about who should own that data, and what responsibility the companies who profit from it have to their users. It’s time we ask ourselves if Americans have the right to exercise greater control over their own data, and whether that right can be signed away simply by clicking an “I agree” button at the bottom of a screen full of indecipherable legalese.
This week, I released a set of 20 proposals, which I believe are a good starting point for this overdue debate on the future of our nation’s technology policy. Should public interest researchers have access to closely-held company data so that they can help identify problems early? Should data be portable and systems interoperable, allowing users to take their accounts to a competitor without losing all their content? Should the platforms be held responsible in some way for removing provably false content?
Government must have some role in answering these important questions, but it must also make sure regulation doesn’t stifle innovation. Congress also needs to substantially improve its understanding of technology in order to make smart laws.
Past time to adapt our laws for the tech age
I have hope that we can strike the right balance. Last year, I introduced the Honest Ads Act with Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., John McCain, R-Ariz., which creates some modest transparency rules for online political advertisements. Facebook and Twitter used our legislation as a road map to create their own ad transparency tools, and I hope Congress will pass this still-needed legislation.
But at the end of the day, the responsibility lies in the hands of every American to decide the roles and responsibilities of technology in our lives, our economy, and our democracy. We should all strive to be active digital citizens — skeptical of what we read on the internet, protective of our private data, and vigilant against cybercriminals, foreign adversaries, and other bad actors who would do us harm.
And we should begin, belatedly, to address the challenge of adapting our laws and regulations to new technology and business practices. The American people have risen to every technological challenge we’ve faced as a nation, and I have faith that the challenges of the digital age will be no exception.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Follow him on Twitter: @MarkWarner