Portman: Social Media Companies Need to Provide Data & Transparency so Congress Can Create Evidence-Based Policy

WASHINGTON, DC – This morning, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, discussed the need to address the threat of harmful content on social media and to hold online platforms accountable for knowingly facilitating such content. Portman highlighted his upcoming bipartisan legislation with Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, to require the largest online platforms to share data with nonpartisan researchers and scholars, so Congress can use their studies to create evidence-based policy solutions. 

Senator Portman has been a leader in the Senate in working to address bad actors online. In 2018, his bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) was signed into law as part of a broader congressional effort to help stop online sex trafficking, hold websites accountable for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking, and provide justice for victims. 

A transcript of his opening remarks can be found below and a video can be found here

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate your holding this hearing. It’s a very important topic, and I look forward to hearing from our experts today. And then I think in a future hearing, hearing from some of the companies themselves. The role that social media plays in directing content that can lead to online and offline harms has taken on new significance in the past several weeks, as we’ve learned more about this from whistleblowers and others. And news has emerged about malfeasance by some of the largest internet platforms. This exploitation of social media, of course, is not new. 

“In 2016, as Chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of this Committee, I held a hearing which examined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS’s use of online platforms in furtherance of their violent goals. We learned from testimony that social media accelerates, in this case, ISIS radicalization and recruitment efforts and can also speed up their mobilization to violence. Today, foreign terrorist actors continue to try to weaponize social media to inspire radicalization and attacks against Americans and American interests. This use of social media for nefarious purposes is not limited to terrorists, of course. Drug traffickers, foreign adversaries, and a host of other threat actors exploit online platforms, particularly social media. China and Russia, use these platforms to conduct influence campaigns targeting Americans, including being involved in our elections. Drug cartels and gangs use these platforms to traffic narcotics. Traffickers use these platforms to exploit children and other vulnerable people and domestic violent extremists across the ideological spectrum use social media to spread propaganda and recruit members to their cause. So it’s a broad problem. 

“Social media platforms acknowledge that threats exist and they talk about what they’re doing to prevent bad actors from exploiting their sites, including artificial intelligence to help moderate content, networks of cross-industry partnerships, and on staff experts. Some of you may have been in that position. All to prevent or remove dangerous content. However, there is still a persistent threat of harmful content despite what the platforms say they’re doing. These social media companies are businesses. So it’s not surprising that Congress and others have trouble getting more information on their algorithms and how they operate, how they’re designed to amplify content. That’s proprietary information. I understand that, but Congress has heard from whistleblowers, like Frances Haugen recently, that Facebook has not addressed troubling aspects of its algorithms, which have promoted a variety of concerning and alarming posts. This raises important questions about whether or not it is time to revisit the immunity provided by Section 230. 

“In 2017, during my time as PSI Chair, I introduced legislation which would remove Section 230 immunity from platforms that knowingly facilitated sex trafficking. So we have dealt with this issue. That legislation, called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA, was actually signed into law back in 2018. We figured out how to deal successfully with Section 230, at least in this one narrow area, but very important area. I take advocates, researchers and even platforms at their word when they call for regulation. But regulation can take many forms, which puts a premium on having sound information and analysis as we consider legislation to solve these problems. In other words, we need to know more. We need to be able to look under the hood and figure out what the issues are to be able to regulate properly. 

“These experts are in front of us here today to help evaluate the extent of the problem and also discuss what we should be doing about it. So far, we’ve found out a lot about social media business models from third-party researchers and from whistleblowers. The findings are largely based on anecdotal evidence. If they want to ensure that Congress pursues evidence-based policy solutions, I think it’s incumbent upon the platforms to provide quality data. I’m already working with Senator Coons, who is Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, on legislation that would require the largest tech platforms to share data with legitimate researchers and scholars so that we can all work together on solutions to these problems that all of us have identified. Dr. Persily has been an important partner in this work, so I look forward to his testimony today. 

“Importantly, as we look at these issues, we must take care that our efforts hold these platforms accountable, but it’s done in a manner that balances First Amendment protections, which I understand Professor Franks is going to discuss in her testimony. 

“Mr. Chairman, again, thanks for having this hearing, and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses, and I thank you for giving us a chance to have real experts in front of us.”