A monthslong bipartisan effort to crack down on Big Tech pivoted much of its focus towards the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict during a House subcommittee hearing.
The House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce held a March 1 hearing entitled "Holding Big Tech Accountable," the third in a series focused on legislation aimed at addressing concerns around Big Tech, including targeted advertising and artificial intelligence.
While the hearing was set to focus on legislation aimed at strengthening protections for online users and increasing transparency, it opened with representatives on both sides of the aisle calling out Russian disinformation efforts on online platforms.
Russian misinformation online
The disinformation "spreads like wildfire online," Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., said in opening remarks.
Disinformation campaigns have real-world consequences on Ukraine and other European allies of the U.S., added Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., told reporters that she hopes Big Tech companies are working to take down misinformation. "I'm sure there are Russian actors who are working hard right now, and they're sending out their own narrative, even a false one," Trahan said. "I think that [Big Tech] should be doing their best to make sure that's not being broadly distributed," she added.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who chairs the consumer protection subcommittee, told reporters that more work needs to be done on Big Tech's side to clamp down on Russian misinformation. However, Schakowsky is not optimistic, citing what she viewed as Meta Platforms Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg's lack of transparency in previous testimony on disinformation shared during the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.
The Russia-Ukraine disinformation matters have also been raised on the broadcast side. The National Association of Broadcasters issued a March 1 statement saying that U.S. broadcasters should pull Russian state-sponsored programming.
Russian media being disseminated in the U.S. is most certainly propaganda, Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, told S&P Global Market Intelligence.
"America's got to realize that when they turn on the TV and they see Russian TV on there, that it's propaganda. And that it's gonna help them [Russia] in their war on the Ukrainians," Latta said.
As to the bills being reviewed, AI for the People CEO Mutale Nkonde pushed for the passage of one particular piece of legislation, the Algorithmic Accountability Act.
The bill directs the Federal Trade Commission to require entities to draw up impact assessments of their automated decision processes in an effort to boost the transparency of flawed algorithms.
The act got a lot of attention. "In the real world, more and more decisions are being made from artificial intelligence" from user data being collected online, said Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill.
The lack of AI transparency could impact emerging technologies, notably the metaverse, a future iteration of the internet in which people partake in everyday tasks in a fully virtual world, Nkonde said.
"You're still going to have the very real experience of abuse," Nkonde said, describing how the use of technologies like haptics in metaverse environments would still allow vulnerable people to experience assault and other real-world abuses.
Laurel Lehman, a Consumer Reports policy analyst said a "fully empowered" Federal Trade Commission would be able to better protect users, noting that the size of the agency is smaller than in years past.
All witnesses said a comprehensive privacy bill should be passed into law.
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., noted that the United Kingdom, European Union and the U.S. Senate were already ahead on bills that would enhance privacy protections of Americans.
During the hearing, The White House announced that President Joe Biden would, in the March 1 State of the Union address, call on Congress to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children and demand technology companies stop collecting personal data on children.
Schakowsky told reporters after the hearing that she thinks Biden's input will help drive momentum for the House bills to go into markup, where pieces of legislation are debated and voted on. Schakowsky hopes for a vote sometime this spring and is also confident the bills will get bipartisan agreement.
"We are entering a new phase of tech accountability," the chair said. "This is the moment."