Ro Khanna says Congress has failed to regulate tech industry. He’s offering a path forward.

Congressman Ro Khanna, D-_CA17. Official photo: Khanna.house.gov

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., spares no punches about the inability of Congress to regulate technology companies in his upcoming book, “Dignity in a Digital Age.”

“The dirty secret in Silicon Valley is that Congress will hold a hearing every few months, yell at a CEO or accuse them of theft to launch a viral clip, maybe even publish a blistering report – but then nothing changes and nothing happens,” Khanna wrote in the book, set to be released Tuesday and reviewed in advance by The Washington Post.

Khanna cites the “technological illiteracy” of Congress as a big reason there’s still no federal data privacy law or “well-crafted antitrust regulations.”

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But the book isn’t just a critique of Capitol Hill’s approach to the tech sector. Khanna lays out a governmental and societal road map for how to deal with industry abuses, while also spreading Silicon Valley’s wealth and opportunities around the country.

Khanna outlines concrete legislative proposals he suggests Congress should consider to boost competition, expand consumer privacy protections and address concerns about the dangers of social media, while weaving in scholarly references to the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and American philosopher John Rawls.

We caught up with Khanna over the phone this month to dig into those ideas and discuss what Congress is still missing about Silicon Valley, and vice versa.

Khanna hasn’t been shy about criticizing some proposals under consideration to revamp U.S. antitrust law. But his own ideas resonate with the approaches taken by congressional leaders, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I.

Khanna’s plans largely involve updating existing antitrust standards rather than proposing new laws. He suggests broader interpretations that might catch more alleged anti-competitive behavior by tech giants like Facebook and Amazon.

To that end, he floats imposing what’s called an “abuse of dominance” standard, which “would prevent big tech from leveraging their market power to charge premiums, unfairly restrict competitors, or privilege their own products,” Khanna wrote.

“There should be a sense of making sure that companies with large platforms aren’t discriminating against sellers, against their competitors,” he told us.

It’s similar conceptually to bills introduced by Klobuchar and Cicilline and under discussion in the European Union, though Khanna’s proposal would be executed differently. They all seek to define what a dominant platform is and what conduct it shouldn’t engage in.

But Khanna also stressed the importance of balancing harms to innovation, a concern echoed by many of his California colleagues. He wrote that Congress needs to promote competition “without enacting legislation that is overbroad or destroys services that consumers want.”

In the book, he endorses requiring that dominant tech companies show that a proposed merger won’t harm competition to get it approved rather than tasking regulators with proving a deal will harm competition. That’s another idea gaining steam on Capitol Hill.

In 2018, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., then the minority leader, tasked Khanna with developing what became his “Internet Bill of Rights,” a set of principles for what consumers should be afforded by companies when browsing the Internet. It included ideas that have become a common feature of privacy proposals on Capitol Hill, including rules that companies get opt-in consent before collecting data from users and give consumers the right to delete their data or move it to another site.

“I still believe opt-in consent will get us a significant way there,” Khanna said. “But we need more than that.”

In the book, he expands on his initial ideas, suggesting that companies be required to act as fiduciaries when handling users’ data, or, in other words, that it should be a duty to exercise care and loyalty. It’s a concept that has gained popularity among Democratic lawmakers, including a group of 15 senators who introduced legislation based around that concept in 2018. But the idea hasn’t picked up much, if any, momentum with Republicans.

When Khanna discusses social media regulation, he’s more hesitant than some of his Democratic colleagues to call for sweeping reforms.

“I’m very conscious of the First Amendment, the limits of government and being an arbiter of truth, and I’m also sensitive to private censorship,” he said.

That’s evident in his book. While other lawmakers have called for significant changes to Section 230, the embattled liability shield for digital services, Khanna has largely resisted them.

In fact, he was one of the few lawmakers who voted against the only House bill to amend Section 230 that’s been signed into law, known as Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.

But his book embraces a narrow proposal to change the law. He suggests making tech companies “liable for failing to remove content on their websites when a court finds that it incites violence or abuse.” And he stresses in the book that it should largely only apply to imminent threats.

He also suggests implementing more transparency requirements on social media companies, a push that has gained steam on Capitol Hill. In the book, he writes that “large social media companies should be required to file a report on how they control and amplify speech without having to reveal proprietary information.”

While he envisions narrow content regulations in Washington, he thinks the companies in Silicon Valley are in need of a major awakening about their role in society. He talks about creating a sense of “democratic patriotism” and instilling in engineers and executives that they have a role to play in preserving democracy and boosting democratic ideals.

To that end, he makes the case for why social media companies should put less emphasis on maximizing profits and engagement, calling in the book for them to “not only optimize for attention with like and share buttons, but to also optimize for engagement with a wide range of perspectives.”

On the balance, Khanna told us, there seems to be too much “hate speech that is actually inciting violence, and that is making these platforms not open to actual exchange of ideas.”

Khanna isn’t the first lawmaker on Capitol Hill to hope for this, though, and given the big cultural shift he’s pining for, he likely won’t be the last.

 

 

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