When it comes to the federal government's management of consumer technology and privacy law, we're used to seeing headlines about various politicians who have a comically shaky grasp on the legal, environmental, and civic implications of various products and services.
So when a former governor and current US Senator like Mark Warner wants to sit down and give an interview on the consequences of breaking up Facebook and regulating the tech industry, we wouldn't blame techies for girding themselves against statements that customarily come from representatives who explore outside of comfort zones like tax reform or immigration policy.
But Mark Warner is no ordinary pol. Before running for office, he came from a successful stint as a venture capitalist with Columbia Capital who made early investments in Nextel Communications, which merged with Sprint in 2004 when the two companies were the fifth and third largest mobile carriers in the US, respectively.
According to Bloomberg, Columbia Capital "targets companies in the wireless, broadband, new media, and enterprise information technology sectors in the international market."
While such a work history might indicate a permissiveness about tech policy, Warner has gone in the opposite direction. He may be one of the few people in the Senate who understands how much cultural influence Facebook has, and how much the platform can be impacted by determined and malicious actors. As a result, he's been a major proponent of the Honest Ads Act, because political advertisements on the internet are actually not regulated like they are on radio and TV. Warner has found Facebook's self-regulation attempts underwhelming.
He tells The Verge that the company has "released information that is candidate-specific, but if you turn on the TV right now, many of the ads you'll see won't mention a candidate. They'll say, 'Vote against the candidate who is not for strong immigration rules,' or 'Vote against a candidate that doesn't believe in protecting our planet.'"
That said, Warner doesn't believe that a Bell Telephone-style breakup of Facebook would be reasonable, because it could make the company unfairly weaker against international competition: "The caution is, if we were to start with the breakup of Facebook and Google, what would we do with Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent? In a world-based economy, you can't look at these only on a national basis. My fear is that the Chinese companies -- which are frankly on a growth rate even faster than Facebook, Google, and Twitter's growth -- don't have any of the constraints of the other companies."
Unlike a geographically based company like Bell Telephone, social platforms are customarily available to anyone with an internet connection, regardless of where they live. While Facebook opened itself up to the world in stages, it could afford to do so at the time because no real challenger ever emerged.
In fact, according to The Facebook Effect, the company was able to target specific universities where competition was emerging by opening Facebook at several nearby campuses, which caused the pendulum of interest to shift away from the local upstart.
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Now, social networks like Snap and Instagram must be able to compete across borders if they are to compete at all -- but we've learned from Facebook's lingering issues with authentic users and content that some kind of federal regulation may be reasonable either way.
Warner says, "It's just weird that we don't view our personal information residing in those companies as being more vulnerable. At least in the government, there are protections put in place. There's no such protections in the companies."
When that data is exposed in big security breaches even after all the adjustments that Facebook has done behind the scenes to protect its users in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the company has trouble verifying the identities of its advertisers as recently as last week, there may come a time when the Senate and House of Representatives decide that legislation is necessary to put Facebook's house in order.
Meanwhile, the midterm election vote tomorrow may tip both the House and the Senate in the Democratic party's favor, giving Mark Warner and like-minded representatives the votes they need to move forward, and the committee power to subpoena the documents and testimony necessary to build a case. Warner himself is not up for re-election until 2020.
- In an interview with The Verge, Senator Mark Warner says that federal regulation about online data privacy is needed, but that breaking up Facebook would be too extreme.
- Warner argues that breaking up Facebook would go too far because it could unfairly impact the company's ability to compete with less restrained overseas competition, particularly from China.
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