Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) wants the US to impose net neutrality rules on Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and other Web companies.
Net neutrality rules today apply only to Internet service providers, such as cable companies and mobile carriers. ISPs are not allowed to block, throttle, or demand payments to prioritize delivery of lawful Internet traffic. The rules are meant to give all websites—both the established players and startups—a fair shot at reaching Internet users.
But Franken argues that similar non-discrimination rules should apply to the most dominant websites.
“As tech giants become a new kind of Internet gatekeeper, I believe the same basic principles of net neutrality should apply here: no one company should have the power to pick and choose which content reaches consumers and which doesn’t,” Franken wrote yesterday in an op-ed for The Guardian. “Facebook, Google, and Amazon—like ISPs—should be ‘neutral’ in their treatment of the flow of lawful information and commerce on their platforms.”
A commonly used argument against applying the same rules to websites and ISPs is that Internet users can easily and quickly switch from one website to another but may only have one or two choices of ISPs. That’s the argument Democrats made when the Republican-controlled Congress eliminated privacy rules that applied to ISPs but not websites. (Later, one Republican called for a new set of privacy rules that would apply to both ISPs and websites.)
Franken argues that certain Web companies have become so powerful that it’s hard for Americans to find alternatives. Franken wrote:
You may not like that Facebook uses your likes, shares, and comments to decide for you which advertisements or friends’ posts are most relevant for your News Feed. And you may not like that Google can now deliver ads to you by combining its DoubleClick data on your Web browsing behavior with your personally identifiable information that it gathered through your Gmail account. But are you ever going to delete the profile and connections you’ve spent years establishing on the world’s dominant social network? Or get rid of your Gmail account?
Big tech companies are trying to “decide for us what we should read, watch, buy, or even how we should engage in civil society,” and their dominance “gives them tremendous power to dictate terms with journalists, publishers, and authors and to control the information available to consumers,” he also wrote.
About 75 percent of Internet news traffic referrals are handled by Google and Facebook, “meaning that three out of four times an Internet user accesses a news story online, they get there via Google or Facebook,” Franken wrote.
Facebook, Google, and Amazon “have used their algorithms to extract unfair terms and fees from those dependent on its platform, promote their own products and services above those of competing companies, and even manipulate the emotional state of its users,” he wrote. Franken was referring to a 2014 experiment conducted by Facebook.
Franken also raised concerns about Facebook letting advertisers target ads at people who expressed interest in anti-semitic content. Amazon, he wrote, has used its dominance of the e-book market “to force publishers to agree to contract terms and conditions that the publishers say have stalled price competition among book distributors, ultimately resulting in higher e-book prices for consumers.”
Franken also described his concerns in a speech yesterday.
Franken wants investigations and hearings
These companies don’t operate in a rule-free zone, as they can face antitrust enforcement and Federal Trade Commission punishment for unfair trade practices. But by calling for a new form of net neutrality rules, Franken is clearly arguing that the companies need to face a new, stricter type of regulation.
Franken didn’t propose specific rules but said Congress should conduct investigations and hold hearings “to fully understand current practices and the potential for harm.”
Franken’s op-ed comes amidst growing concern in Congress about how big Web companies shape public opinion. A hearing last week involving Facebook, Google, and Twitter focused on how their platforms were used for Russian propaganda campaigns during last year’s presidential election.
“None of the three organizations said they supported proposed legislation requiring them to disclose who is buying political advertisements on their platforms, although these Web companies promised more public transparency about who is buying ads on their networks,” we wrote at the time.
Franken wrote that “Everyone is rightfully focused on Russian manipulation of social media,” but that lawmakers should “ask the broader questions. How did big tech come to control so many aspects of our lives? How is it using our personal information to strengthen its reach and its bottom line? Are these companies engaging in anti-competitive behavior that restricts the free flow of information and commerce?”
FCC rolling back net neutrality rules
But when it comes to net neutrality, the US is heading away from regulation rather than toward stricter rules. The Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules were imposed in 2015 under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler, but current Chairman Ajit Pai has started a proceeding that could eliminate the rules as soon as next month.
Congress could pass a net neutrality law itself, but no proposal has yet come close to passage.
We contacted Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, and their lobby group the Internet Association today about Franken’s call for new rules. Twitter replied and pointed us to its official position on net neutrality, which talks only about rules that apply to ISPs. We’ll update this story if the others give us any response.