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How to Regulate the Internet

The US government should establish a new expert regulatory body to tackle the huge and growing threat posed by disinformation on digital platforms. Such an agency would do what the digital giants have no incentive to do on their own: enhance transparency, improve user control, and help sustain local journalism.

WASHINGTON, DC – The only topic uniting right and left in the United States these days is “techlash”: everyone seems to agree that the time has come for federal regulation of digital platforms. The question is no longer if, but how.

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives and the highest-ranking Democratic federal official, recently pushed back against her big-tech San Francisco constituency, declaring that “the era of self-regulation is over.” President Donald J. Trump is holding a summit on social media at the White House this week, and Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri has introduced legislation threatening the platforms’ protection from immunity if they demonstrate “politically biased” moderation.

Politicians are channeling widespread public animosity toward digital platforms: according to a Pew Research Center poll, Americans regard disinformation as a bigger threat than violent crime. Yet, in sharp contrast to their European counterparts, US policymakers have so far shied away from regulation – out of concerns that the technology is too complex, or that effective measures would entail government censorship. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) between them have begun antitrust investigations of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple, while the House Antitrust Subcommittee has also started investigations. But any antitrust suit would move slowly and be tough to win under current law. Moreover, without regulatory oversight, antitrust measures alone cannot address the vulnerabilities that threaten the flow of information necessary for democracy to function.