Tech companies may have to hand out research data under this bill

Tech companies like YouTube, TikTok and Facebook could be forced to share more data with outside researchers under a major bipartisan proposal that was officially unveiled last week.

The updated Platform Accountability and Transparency Act would require digital platforms to release data for federally approved research projects – or face liability. Sens. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) are the primary sponsors.

The bill, first introduced as a discussion bill last December, represents one of Congress’ most serious attempts to shed light on the inner workings of social media platforms, whose sprawling but often opaque networks are coming under increasing scrutiny for their impact on the are exposed to society.

Under the plan, the National Science Foundation would review and give the green light to “qualified” research proposals, provided they meet privacy and security safeguards worked out by the Federal Trade Commission. Failure to comply can result in companies losing their Section 230 liability protections or being sued for unfair or deceptive trading practices.

The proposal would also create a way for platforms and researchers to gain immunity while sharing user data, which lawmakers hope will ease fears of a potential legal backlash. And it would separately require tech companies to regularly release data to the public about viral content, their moderation calls, and digital advertising.

Coons said the bill will “enable academics and independent researchers to look under the hood and see what is the machinery that powers these social media platforms and whether or not they are genuinely harmful in any way.” .”

While the thrust of the original draft remains unchanged, lawmakers have adjusted the legislation to expand the pool of eligible researchers, streamline the process for setup and operation, and expand privacy protections.

Here are the main changes in the new version:

• It allows researchers affiliated with non-profit organizations to submit a request for access to company data, in addition to those affiliated with universities.

• The Federal Trade Commission is no longer required to set up a new office to oversee the research program, giving the agency more flexibility in implementation.

• It raises the threshold of monthly users that a platform must cover from 25 million to 50 million, which would still capture most major social networks.

• It extends the scope of covered companies to explicitly include ‘augmented or virtual reality’, which could help future-proof the proposal.

• It sets new privacy limits on what data researchers can request by excluding direct or private messages, biometric data or geolocation data.

Coons, a close ally of President Biden and chair of the Senate Justice Department’s subcommittee on privacy and technology, said he plans to push for the bill to be flagged and moved to the president’s desk at the next Congress.

Coons described it as a “centrist proposal” that could help policymakers turn “opinions about social media” and their impact on users into “facts” that could prove actionable. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) are co-sponsors.

In recent years, lawmakers have expressed growing concern that large platforms could exacerbate mental health problems and contribute to political polarization, prompting some to urge Congress to step in quickly and set new rules for the internet.

“I respect my colleagues who say, ‘We don’t have to study this endlessly. We need to start acting.” I still think we need more information,” Coons said. “It’s not an either/or for me.”

Coons said more data could also help lawmakers “ensure broad bipartisan support for legislative action,” including for tech bills that have yet to garner “strong enough” support to pass.

Government efforts to regulate social media are increasingly encountering legal hurdles as courts engage in thorny arguments over how to interpret old legal norms and apply new digital rules in the internet age.

The Supreme Court will take up two high-profile Section 230 cases, and there are ongoing legal challenges to platform regulations in California, Texas and Florida.

“If our courts had more confidence that our legislation … was well informed, I think we would have a better chance of withstanding court challenges,” Coons said.

Coons cited Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter – seen as an industry leader in sharing data with researchers – as a “cautionary tale” about how a company’s approach to transparency can change without further guard rails in place.

“Twitter was the only platform that was relatively transparent and had made some investment and effort in terms of guardrails and accountability and some transparency in terms of their metrics,” he said. “All of that has been blown up by the change of ownership.” Tech companies may have to hand out research data under this bill

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