Congressman Ro Khanna: The right to know about collection and use of your data. That would have prevented the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Now, most people would not have exercised the right right away. But I’m confident that enough activists would have noticed—they would have put in requests for their data, flagged the suspicious activity, and forced Facebook to track it. At the bare minimum, I think people should have the right to know.
Even if you had two billion users still wanting to use Facebook, the stories on Cambridge Analytica would have been written four months before the election, not four months after. The right to know will give journalists the ability to hold companies accountable, even if it doesn’t dramatically alter consumer preferences.
What are the areas of agreement with your Republican colleagues about tech issues?
I’m working with [House minority leader] Kevin McCarthy on a separate project—we’re very, very close to legislation that would deal with the election interference that took place on technology platforms. We are calling for an “Information Sharing and Analysis Center” that would make it easier for tech companies to exchange information about bad actors. Right now, if Facebook catches a user trying to interfere in an election, they can’t necessarily inform Twitter or Google or other social media companies or the government. We want to make sure they can tackle election interference in the same way banks can share information about fraudulent accounts.
There is a consortium right now, but it’s not very well-formed. [Ed. note: After the Christchurch mosque shootings in March, some tech companies cooperated to take down footage of the shooter’s livestream.] Our bill changes the law to make sharing easier. If Facebook identifies someone on the platform as interfering in an election or spreading disinformation, there would be a presumption of acceptability—a safe harbor—for them to share that user’s information and flag them as problematic without it being a privacy violation.
If privacy regulations interfere with tech companies’ ability to monetize consumer data, how do you anticipating them shifting their business models?
I don’t think monetization of the consumer always has to be the end goal. I think you could have other models for revenue that don’t require relying on individual data.
Regulations in the [European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation], for example, relate to the anonymization of data. So if Facebook wanted to understand advertising patterns, they could give data to a third party, who would give that data back to them and say, “Okay, yeah, for a sunscreen, you want to advertise it to people who are over 65 and have a family with older kids.” But Facebook wouldn’t be able to do that analysis on the individual. I think those types of regulations would make sure companies have to look for alternative sources of revenue based on the product they’re selling, not based on their use of data.
How would such a regulation affect companies like Facebook and Twitter, which for the most part have not gotten into the business of selling products so much as selling ads?
Maybe their ads would be less precise, right? I mean, they are selling a product to consumers—the product is that they’re connecting you with your extended network of family and friends. I probably wouldn’t be in touch with half my high school class, but I am, marginally, because of Facebook.
My point is that if you forced the anonymization of data, you could still have Facebook make money—they could still show me ads. I don’t think anyone would object to Facebook selling ads or having ads directed at me, as long as people didn’t think those ads were manipulated by personal data. These companies could still do very well without going to the extreme of micro-targeting to maximize revenue.
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