Corker: Social media sites must improve information controls or risk federal regulations

Corker: Social media sites must improve information controls or risk federal regulations

November 19th, 2018 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

U.S. Senator Bob Corker meets with the Times Free Press editorial board for the final time as a sitting senator in the newsroom on Monday, Nov. 19, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

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America's biggest social media outlets need to figure out how to better control the spread of false information and privacy data or risk coming under federal regulations, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, said Monday.

"We're really getting on a slippery slope, but I have told the big 3 entities (Facebook, Google and Apple) that they have got to get together and figure out how they are going to deal with these issues or it will be dealt with them by Congress and it probably will not be particularly pleasant," Corker told reporters and editors during an editorial meeting at The Chattanooga Times Free Press. "It's wrong what is happening. Do I trust (Facebook CEO Mark) Zuckerberg to do the right thing with respect to privacy and making sure there are not misinformation campaigns? No I don't."

Corker said the concerted campaigns to distribute false propaganda and misinformation on social media platforms like Facebook "worry me far more than all of the money in politics." The expertise now exists to take images, video and audio of a person and create fake videos in which a simulated voice and facial movement of the person make it appear he or she is saying something that he or she didn't even say.

"Where do you go with this technology and how will the electorate even know what is real and what is not?" Corker asked. "To me this could well be the undoing of our democratic process."

Such political criticism, and critical reports and editorials last week by The New York Times and the Washington Post, have spooked investors in Facebook. Shares of Facebook stock plunged another 5.7 percent Monday in Nasdaq trading, cutting the company's stock price Monday to the lowest level since January 2017.

Facebook has shed more than $30 billion of market value since a report last Wednesday in The New York Times with the headline "Deny, Deflect, Defend" described how Facebook executives aggressively fought criticism of its handling of Russian influence and propaganda on its platform. Social media companies profit from more information being distributed, whether it is true or not, Corker said.

Corker's call for better self regulation from Facebook and other social media outlets echoes what he and U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, told a development forum last week.

"If they don't (come up with their own solution), if they continue to act as if we couldn't possibly deign to regulate them, they'll get regulated and they'll be unpleasantly surprised with how swiftly it may happen," Coons said.

In the past decade, Facebook has connected more than 2.2 billion people around the globe to its platform, reshaping the advertising business, political campaigns and daily life around the world while collecting the largest ever repository of personal data. Facebook acknowledged that "inauthentic" accounts likely operating out of Russia had purchased $100,000 worth of political ads between 2015 and 2016.

In a statement to The New York Times, Facebook said it has been slow to challenges but said it is working to fix the platform.

"This has been a tough time at Facebook and our entire management team has been focused on tackling the issues we face," the statement said. "While these are hard problems we are working hard to ensure that people find our products useful and that we protect our community from bad actors."

Corker said he worries that false reports can be put out on targeted internet sites and promoted to get many viewers and then drive even mainstream media to consider such information.

"Once somebody picks up one of these false reports and puts it in a legitimate newspaper or broadcast as a fact, then it's real to most people," he said.

Much of the misleading information is coming from outside of the United States, leading U.S. Sens. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, to sponsor legislation for social media companies to disclose where any purchased content is coming from.

"The fake stuff can still make in on these platforms from anywhere and I don't know how you deal with that," Corker conceded.

The U.S. constitution protects media outlets in the First Amendment with its freedoms of speech and press. But the European Union, which doesn't have such explicit freedom enshrined in a constitution, is looking at regulating email and messaging prviders such as Google and Facbook similar to how traditional telecoms like telephone and broadcast companies are regulated.

"It cannot be right that a company providing traditional telecommuications servcies has to meet certain regulatory requirements, like those concerning data protection, while a company providing comparable services over the web does not," said Hochen Homann, head of German's network agency.

Corker said the risks of misinformation from such social media technologies and distribution is especially acute in countries where those in power are already trying to limit or control what the public in their country is told.

"It's ripe for the wrong kind of leader to come up with the wrong kind of solution," Corker said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.


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