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Tech Experts Debate Strategies to Regulate Social Media, Protect Private Data

The Berkman Klein Center was founded at Harvard Law School, but elevated to a University-wide center in 2008.
The Berkman Klein Center was founded at Harvard Law School, but elevated to a University-wide center in 2008. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Betsey I. Bennett and Anne M. Brandes, Contributing Writers

Legal and policy experts debated strategies to protect private data on platforms including Facebook, Google, and Twitter in a virtual panel hosted Tuesday by the Berkman Klein Center, a University-wide research center that studies challenges posed by the internet.

The discussion marked the premier event hosted by the Institute for Rebooting Social Media, a three-year “pop-up” research group founded “to accelerate progress towards addressing social media’s most urgent problems,” per its website. Over the three years, the institute will invite scholars across disciplines to weigh in on the debate.

Tuesday’s webinar featured Stanford Law School professor Nathaniel Persily; Nabiha Syed, the president of the tech-focused newsroom the Markup; former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Nicole Wong; and Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts.

Harvard Law School professor Jonathan L. Zittrain, who moderated the panel, said the institute is joining “an already really rigorous effort” to regulate social media companies and determine who should have access to users’ private data.

Drawing from their diverse backgrounds, panelists envisioned “data-driven oversight of social media” and exchanged ideas about how to safeguard the public interest.

The panel occurred weeks after former Facebook data scientist and whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress. Haugen turned over internal Facebook research to The Wall Street Journal that revealed Instagram and Facebook’s harmful effects on society.

Persily, the Stanford professor, who has worked at Facebook for the past five years, kicked off the panel by offering an insider perspective. He said he drafted legislation that called for a federally-mandated system administered by the Federal Trade Commission that would compel social media companies to share data with outside experts in exigent circumstances.

“We cannot live in a world where the only people who have the insights on what is most of human experience right now are those who are tied to the profit-maximizing efficiency of these firms,” Persily said. “I became convinced that government regulation is really the only answer here.”

Speaking from her experience as a journalist, Syed urged viewers to be skeptical of reports put out by tech companies on their own services. Instead, she suggested independent researchers and journalists solicit data from social media consumers to conduct their own studies.

Zuckerman, the UMass professor, said he favors a combination of third-party research and government regulation of big tech. He cited YouTube as an instance in which third-party research is insufficient.

“YouTube is surprisingly understudied despite the fact that it’s enormously influential,” Zuckerman said. “That’s because it’s a pain in the ass to study. You have to grab the videos, transcribe them, and do text analysis on them.”

The government could solve that problem by forcing YouTube to turn over internal data.

Wong, the former U.S. official, contextualized the challenges posed by social media regulation.

“We’re early in the regulatory process,” Wong said. “What you see our policy makers struggling with is that they’re not sure what they’re regulating because it is different to regulate privacy versus human rights verses misinformation.”

Wong proposed a multi-layered approach to balance increasing transparency with protecting users’ privacy. According to Wong, consumers, journalists, and researchers should have access to select information depending on the level of sensitivity.

Though she believes some tech companies are engaging with the public in good faith, Wong said others — notably Facebook — are obscuring issues with their tech to prioritize their brand at the expense of the public’s interest.

“There are some companies out there that are genuinely trying to be upfront,” Wong said. “They can get into the honest conversation: So what’s the system we’re supposed to be building?”

Others choose to mislead and promote a narrative that she called “toxic positivity.”

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