- Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, called Tuesday for the big tech companies to be more transparent about how they run their services.
- Pai said he opposes regulating tech companies like utilities, but implied he believes new regulations may be needed to require such transparency.
- He didn’t spell out precisely what kind of rules he would support or how they would be enforced.
The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is calling for new “obligations” to make tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter reveal more details about how the operate their online services.
In a post on Medium on Tuesday, Ajit Pai said internet companies have amassed unprecedented influence over the economy and society yet lack proper public accountability to the public.
“We need to seriously think about whether the time has come for these companies to abide by new transparency obligations,” Pai wrote in the post, titled “What I Hope to Learn from the Tech Giants.”
The comments by the FCC Chair, who has no direct authority over internet companies like Google and Facebook, come a week after President Trump blasted Google for allegedly shutting out conservative voices. And in recent days, many on the right have been echoing Trump’s allegations and calling for new rules to govern tech firms, including potentially utility-style regulations.
Pai said that the tech companies policies and practices with regards to user privacy, online expression and operational transparency deserve more scrutiny. Although he explicitly said he was against regulating tech companies like public utilities, Pai called on government officials to “thoughtfully explore” the issues.
On Wednesday, executives at Twitter, Facebook, and Alphabet-owned Google are slated to testify at hearings on Capitol Hill about topics such as transparency and foreign actors’ attempts to infiltrate their services to spread propaganda influence operations on their services.
“The public deserves to know more about how these companies operate,” Pai said. He continued: “Just as is the case with respect to broadband providers, consumers need accurate information in order to make educated choices about whether and how to use these tech giants’ platforms.”
The big tech companies have faced growing criticism in recent months and years, especially since Russian-linked groups hijacked some of the services to spread propaganda during the 2016 election. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal this spring, growing concerns about the companies’ privacy practices, and the companies’ bans on comments by right-wing figures such as Alex Jones have only amplified the outcry against them from all parts of the political spectrum.
Pai opposes regulating the tech companies like utilities
In his post, Pai said regulating big tech similarly to how gas and electric utilities are regulated is “not the right answer.”
“The government - in particular, the Federal Communications Commission, which I have the privilege of leading - shouldn’t regulate these entities like a water company,” Pai said.
But he did suggest that new rules are needed to force tech companies to disclose more information about how they manage their services, particularly about how they decide which users can and can’t speak and what they can post.
“Are these tech giants running impartial digital platforms over which they don’t exercise editorial judgment when it comes to content?” Pai wrote. “Or do they in fact decide what speech is allowed and what is not and discriminate based on ideology and/or political affiliation? … Going back to the first point: where is the transparency?”
Pai also took aim at the tech companies’ privacy practices. He noted the recent controversies such as Google’s collecting users’ location data even when they thought they’d asked it not to and called for the companies to disclose more information about what kinds of information they are collecting from their users and what they are doing with it.
“Most consumers have no idea that their data is being shared in these ways,” Pai wrote. “Most consumers have no idea how this data is being used.”
Pai did not spell out exactly what kind of regulations he would favour or which agency he thought would be best placed to enforce them. The FCC has authority over broadband, telephone, and television providers, but traditionally has had little authority over website operators or app providers.
His call for new regulations on tech companies comes just months after the FCC under his lead repealed its net-neutrality rules that governed broadband service providers. Pai also cheered Congress’ move last year to overturn FCC regulations intended to restrict what broadband providers could do with customers’ personal information.
Pai’s statement comes as net-neutrality proponents have been trying to collect enough signatures among members of the House of Representatives to force a vote on overturning the FCC’s repeal of its net-neutrality rules. The Senate passed a similar measure earlier this year.
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