For much of his two terms in the White House, the ascent of the technology giants went largely unchallenged in Washington where officials, including Obama, embraced the innovation unfolding across the country. But the 2016 election at the twilight of his tenure ushered in a wave of scandals that would turn that cozy relationship between the Bay and the Beltway into a regular brawl.
Now, Obama is launching his most concerted effort to shape the response from Washington to the thorny challenge of countering online disinformation and regulating the social media companies that ballooned under his watch.
Delivering a sweeping address at Stanford University on Thursday, Obama laid out his vision for countering the shifting landscape around how we communicate and consume information, which he called “one of the biggest reasons” for a weakening of democracy.
The former president stressed that misinformation and political divisions predated social media and that technology is not entirely to blame for rising polarization, and far from it, he said. But Obama sharply pushed back on the notion that digital platforms are neutral actors.
“They are also the result of very specific choices made by the companies that have come to dominate the Internet generally and social media platforms, in particular, decisions that intentionally or not have made democracy more vulnerable,” Obama said.
Delivering his most detailed address on the topic since leaving office, Obama threw his support behind an array of concepts for regulating social media that have been gaining steam overseas and, albeit more slowly, in Washington.
Echoing calls on Capitol Hill, Obama said “we need to consider reforms” to the law that shields digital services from lawsuits for hosting and moderating user content, known as Section 230.
In one of his most concrete suggestions, he said lawmakers should consider “whether platforms should be required to have a higher standard of care when it comes to advertising.” The idea builds on comments Obama made during a recent interview with the Atlantic, in which he floated exempting from Section 230 protections “advertising that is microtargeting certain groups.”
Both Democrats and Republicans have introduced legislation to roll back those legal safeguards over certain types of paid content, including a bill led by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) targeting ads and paid content more broadly, and another one by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) targeting behavioral advertising. Lawmakers have also floated imposing a duty of care on companies.
Obama also voiced support for mandating technology companies to disclose more information about their digital platforms, the algorithms that drive them and their public impact.
“In a democracy, we can rightly expect companies to subject the design of their products and services to some level of scrutiny,” he said. “At minimum, they should have to share that information with researchers and regulators who are charged with keeping the rest of us safe.” He explicitly plugged a proposal led by Sens. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to create such a rule.
One lawmaker leading efforts to regulate social media said the remarks from Obama could generate momentum for proposals already on the table. “I think it can only help,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who has introduced a bill to strip Section 230 protections for companies that amplify certain types of content, told me.
He added, “I think he is pointing us to a solution that involves targeted reform of Section 230, and that’s where I’ve long thought we need to end up.” Malinowski said Obama rightly has zeroed in on how digital platforms are designed, and how those choices can amplify harmful content.
That also shows how much the debate around social media and Internet regulation has evolved since Obama first entered the White House, Malinowski said. “He was president when the world adopted a radically new mode of distributing information, namely algorithmic amplification,” he said. “It started roughly 15 years ago,” he said.
European policymakers poised to unveil landmark digital legislation
The Digital Services Act would ban online targeting of people based on their religion, gender or sexual preferences, the Financial Times’s Javier Espinoza reports. It would also take aim at major tech companies that use “dark patterns,” or ways of getting users to do things they don’t actually want to do, and would add new safeguards to protect children online.
“While regulators expect a deal to be struck on Friday, some warned that the timing could slip and the final agreement could change at the last minute,” Espinoza writes. “There remain tensions within the European parliament between greens who want more privacy protections and liberals who are defending business-friendly regulations.”
Musk outlines $46.5 billion plan to buy Twitter
Tesla chief executive Elon Musk says he’ll draw on a combination of loans and equity financing for his proposed acquisition of Twitter, Faiz Siddiqui, Douglas MacMillan and Aaron Gregg report. But the plan also suggests that Musk is willing to risk some of the Tesla shares that have made him the world’s richest person to finance the bid.
Questions still remain about the structure of the deal and how Twitter will respond. Twitter spokesman Brenden Lee said the company has received an “updated, nonbinding proposal” from Musk, and “the Board is committed to conducting a careful, comprehensive and deliberate review to determine the course of action that it believes is in the best interest of the Company and all Twitter stockholders.”
Shanghai residents skirt Chinese censorship to vent about lockdown
It’s not clear how people are escaping the country’s strict censorship program to share videos of a Chinese government lockdown in Shanghai, Pranshu Verma reports. Questions remain about whether China’s censorship regime will eventually stifle dissent in the country.
“I’ve been asked by journalists this question many times: You know, ‘Is this the tipping point?’ ” said Yaqiu Wang, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on China. “It’s happened so many times before. … There’s always this uproar. But the government always comes in and contains the situation.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that Meta chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg twice pressured the Daily Mail to scrap an article about her boyfriend at the time, Activision Blizzard chief executive Bobby Kotick. The New York Times’s Ryan Mac:
Protocol’s Issie Lapowsky:
The big irony here: A powerful woman is so afraid that her boyfriend’s actions will reflect badly on her reputation as a feminist icon that she reportedly goes and does something that actually *does* reflect badly on her reputation as a feminist icon. https://t.co/j0wgz5nccy
— issie lapowsky (@issielapowsky) April 21, 2022
- The R Street Institute holds an event on aspects of a U.S. privacy law Monday at noon.
- Clearview AI founder and chief executive Hoan Ton-That speaks at a Washington Post Live event Wednesday at 11 a.m.
- The Committee on House Administration holds a hearing on the effects of disinformation on communities of color Thursday at 10 a.m.