WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Chris Coons (D-DE), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law; and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) announced the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act (PATA), a new bipartisan bill that would require social media companies to provide vetted, independent researchers and the public with access to certain platform data.
While major social media companies retain granular data on their products’ impact on Americans and our communities, only a small fraction of it is ever made available to the public. Recent events, including the leak of documents as part of the “Facebook Papers,” have underscored the public value of this data and a need for legislation that increases the platforms’ transparency.
PATA will meet this need by requiring social media companies to disclose certain internal data and respond to independent research requests following the approval of researchers’ proposals by the National Science Foundation. Researchers would then be able to examine the data and release findings on the platforms’ impact to the public. Throughout the process, the data would be subject to strict protections to guard users’ privacy.
“Every new disclosure of problematic activities by social media companies reignites calls for Congressional action,” said Senator Portman. “Before answering any of those calls, Congress should take a step back to ensure that we are not legislating in the dark. Increasing transparency around Big Tech practices will give policymakers the high-quality, well-vetted information we need to do our job most effectively. I took the same thoughtful and measured approach to the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) to reform Section 230, which was the result of a two year investigation into the ways in which certain social media platforms facilitate the sale of children. I have a number of concerns about Big Tech—from facilitating sex trafficking to burying content about the origins of COVID-19—and I want to ensure that any response by Congress is effective in addressing those concerns.”
“Social media has connected the world in ways that were difficult to imagine only a decade ago, but the last few years have also made clear the tradeoffs that come with that,” said Senator Coons. “It’s increasingly clear that more transparency is needed so that the billions of people who use Facebook, Twitter, and similar platforms can fully understand the impact of those tradeoffs. This bipartisan proposal is an important step that will bring much needed information about the impact of social media companies to light and ought to be a crucial part of any comprehensive strategy that Congress can take to regulate major social media companies.”
“Over the last several months, we’ve seen deeply concerning evidence of how social media platforms are harming our families, our communities, and our democracy,” said Senator Klobuchar. “This legislation will increase transparency, which will help us hold these companies accountable and understand what information they have on users and what they do with it. It is time for action – we cannot stand by while social media platforms continue to put profits over safety. Americans deserve to have the facts.”
“This legislation represents a critical step in opening a window onto tech and in holding the large social media platforms accountable,” said Stanford Law Professor Nate Persily. “We cannot live in a world where the platforms know everything about us and we know next to nothing about them. We should not need to wait for whistle blowers to blow their whistles before we gain insights into the greatest problems threatening our democracy and the information ecosystem.”
The text of the bill is available here. A section-by-section summary of the bill is available here.
PATA is a multi-pronged bill that creates new mechanisms to increase transparency around social media companies’ internal data:
- Under PATA, independent researchers would be able to submit proposals to the National Science Foundation, an independent agency designed to promote the progress of science by approving research and development proposals from researchers across the sciences. If the requests are approved, social media companies would be required to provide the necessary data subject to certain privacy protections.
- Companies that failed to comply would be subject to enforcement from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and face the potential loss of immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
- Additionally, the bill would give the FTC the authority to require that platforms proactively make certain information available to researchers or the public on an ongoing basis, such as a comprehensive ad library with information about user targeting and engagement.
- The proposal would also protect researchers from legal liability that may arise from automatically collecting platform information if they comply with various privacy safeguards.
The bipartisan group of legislators will continue to work and gather input as well as feedback from stakeholders before the bill’s formal introduction.