The Platform Transparency and Accountability Act: New Legislation Addresses Platform Data Secrecy

(Originally published by Stanford Cyber Policy Center on December 9, 2021)

New legislation, informed by testimony from Nathaniel Persily, Stanford Law professor and Co-director of the Cyber Policy Center, aims to address the concerning disparity between what platforms know about us, and what we know about them.

National Capitol in Washington DC, United States landmark.

Senators. Chris Coons (D., Del.) Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Amy Klobuchar (D.,Minn.) have introduced legislation conceived to increase transparency, and give researchers access to critical data gathered by platforms, in order to gain insight into key societal issues. The legislation was informed by the October testimony, “Social Media Platforms and the Amplification of Domestic Extremism and Other Harmful Content,” provided by Nathaniel Persily, Stanford Law professor and Co-director of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, and presented before the Untied States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

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Professor Nate Persily

In that testimony, Persily stressed the need to address the untenable lack of transparency in many social media platforms. Addressing the catalyst for his testimony, Persily spoke of the recent revelations and testimony by Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen. This glimpse into the company’s “inner workings” revealed the lopsided nature of Facebook’s relationship with its users. As Persily testified: “That equilibrium–where firm insiders know everything and the rest of us are left to guess–is unsustainable. Facebook and the other Silicon Valley Platforms have lost their right to secrecy.” Persily went on to stress the need for legislation on this front. Transparency legislation that allows researchers “other than those tied to the profit-maximizing mission of the firms, to get access to the data that will shed light on the most pressing questions related to the effects of social media on society.”

The legislation, announced today addresses this pressing need. Said Persily: “This legislation represents a critical step in opening a window onto tech and in holding the large social media platforms accountable.  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 challenges threatening our democracy and the information ecosystem”.

Some key features of the legislation:

  • Allows researchers to submit proposals to the National Science Foundation. If the NSF supports a proposal, social-media platforms would be required to furnish the needed data, subject to privacy protections that could include anonymizing it or “white rooms” in which researchers could review sensitive material.
  • Gives the Federal Trade Commission the authority to require regular disclosure of specific information by platforms, such as data about ad targeting.
  • Commission could require platforms create basic research tools to study what content succeeds, similar to the basic design of the Meta-owned CrowdTangle.
  • Bars social-media platforms from blocking independent research initiatives; both researchers and platforms would be given a legal safe harbor related to privacy concerns.

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