Exclusive Privacy Focus on Social Media Networks is Too Narrow
By Matt Mackowiak
This week another circus comes to Capitol Hill.
No, I am not talking about the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
On Wednesday morning, the Senate Intelligence Committee will hear testimony from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg at a hearing on foreign election interference. Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) asked Google CEO Sundar Pichai to testify, but he declined. Google instead offered their senior vice president of global affairs Kent Walker, but the Committee rejected that witness. Larry Page, the CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was invited to testify also but has not confirmed.
On Wednesday afternoon, Dorsey will testify before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the company’s algorithms and content moderation. Their platform, along with YouTube and Facebook, have been facing questions from conservatives about apparent bias.
These hearings will provide great theater, intense media coverage, and perhaps even some useful information.
There are reasonable questions being asked.
But as often happens, Congress is focusing far too narrowly as it considers new regulations.
Social media platforms may be part of the problem, but they are not the entire problem.
Shouldn’t Congress want to thoroughly, seriously, comprehensively seek out information before engaging in new legislation to regulate the internet generally and these platforms specifically?
The line between social media platforms and internet service providers, many of which are global telecommunications companies, is being blurred as the rate of technological change increases.
Twitter, Google and Facebook are collecting enormous information on their users. But so are telecom companies.
In fact, telecom companies know where you are, who you are engaging with online, what you are watching, when you are watching it, and how you’re watching it.
Any serious legislative effort to protect the privacy of consumers would also consider these companies, in addition to social media platforms.
The issue of privacy in the digital age is not a new topic. Massive data breaches are happening more regularly. Hacking and data leaking are occurring daily. Congress has rightly held hearings on protecting consumer data. As part of their oversight, they have continually targeted social media platforms to make them publicly explain how they are protecting their users.
However, Congress has made no similar effort with telecom companies. Providers like AT&T & Comcast are the gatekeepers of the way people consume media and communicate in today’s modern world, whether it be via the internet, mobile phones or cable and satellite TV.
No sector of the economy has the capability to collect more data on users than telecoms providers. And the more the public’s attention is diverted from telecom data practices to social media companies, the easier it is for telecoms to engage in questionable data practices while stoking scrutiny of their competitors in Silicon Valley.
There is a major battle being waged in Washington with social media platforms on one side and telecom companies on the other. Both sides are blaming the other. So far, Congress appears to be targeting solely social media platforms.
As former FCC advisor Gigi Sohn has said, “[Telecoms] have had Silicon Valley envy now for 15 years… The ways they’ve manifested that envy is to try to get them regulated and to try and beat back regulations like net neutrality that might be helpful to Silicon Valley. Now, they’re hoping they can acquire the expertise necessary to compete.”
This battle is being waged for two reasons: First, both sides want to avoid overregulation that will reduce profitability and hamper innovation and growth. Second, the telecommunications companies want to be able to enter into the growing digital ad market, which is currently being dominated by platforms like Google and Facebook. This is an urgent strategic goal of telecommunication companies given that television advertising is declining as digital ad revenue rapidly grows.
There is obviously every reason for the public and Congress to be concerned about protecting consumers’ privacy. But the fact is policymakers and regulators are singularly focused on internet companies limits their field of vision and ignores a serious threat to privacy.
No companies in the world possess more information on consumers than telecoms and internet service providers. As those companies grow and consolidate, so will the amount of information they have that they can crosscheck.
Companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon mine everything users do for information on their habits to build lucrative profiles, which they then turn and sell to outside advertisers.
Internet companies have already taken drastic steps to update their privacy standards, it’s now time for Congress to pay attention to the real threats to privacy.
A broader view would benefit Congress and the public.
Matt Mackowiak is president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group. He’s a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators. His “Mack on Politics” podcast is available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and on WashingtonTimes.com.