By Mark Sullivan
Senator Amy Klobuchar had a big week last week. One of the largest tech-related spending bills in history passed her house of Congress—the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which, among many other things, allocates $65 billion to the upgrade and extension of U.S. broadband networks. Most of the bill’s broadband provisions came from another bill the Minnesota Democrat wrote in March with House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina.
Klobuchar also introduced one of the first bills to address the anticompetitive practices of Big Tech companies, along with Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. The Open App Markets Act bars tech giants from requiring app developers to use their app stores’ proprietary payment systems, and prohibits them from punishing those that don’t. The bill, which clearly targets Apple and Google and the way they manage their respective app stores, grew out of the antitrust work of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Klobuchar chairs. A companion bill was also introduced in the House.
In July, Klobuchar introduced (with Democratic Senator of New Mexico Ben Ray Luján) a bill that would strip legal immunity provided in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act from social media companies that algorithmically amplify misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines. Section 230 relieves social media companies of responsibility for user-posted content and for content removals.
I talked to Klobuchar on the phone last Friday when she was back home in Minneapolis during Congress’s August recess. If she has anything to say about it, we’ll be seeing a lot more Congressional action on tech antitrust measures in the fall and winter.
ON THE NEW APP STORE BILL
Fast Company: I remember the hearing you held with Apple and Google and app developers in April, and it’s interesting to see bills actually grow directly from that.
Amy Klobuchar: Yeah, exactly, especially bipartisan bills. There’s more work going on too.
So we’re excited, and the fact that that one [infrastructure] funding bill went through so easily is a good sign. It got through the Senate. Now we’re going to have a lot of [antitrust] bills coming up here, including [ones for the] pharma and meat packing [industries] and other things.
Despite the fact that both the House and Senate versions of the app store bill have Republican sponsors, what headwinds do you think they may face? Are they going to get a fair hearing and actually come to a vote?
As far as obstacles, these are the biggest companies the world has ever known. You can’t go around a . . . corridor . . . without seeing a lobbyist or someone trying to convince someone that everything is fine. And everything isn’t fine, and so that’s why we pass legislation.
Are these tech lobbyists coming directly to you?
In the past we let them know things. We talked to them. I mean, you want to do that. But no, they know where I am on this. But they are going to other people, trying to get them not to sponsor bills, or to weaken the bills. I noticed that on the app store [issue], [the tech company lobby] has this very catchy—but, I thought, telling—name, called the “Chamber of Progress.” [The Chamber of Progress is funded by both Apple and Google, along with other tech giants including Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter.]
I thought, okay, at least you’re honest that what you are is really the tech companies’ Chamber of Commerce. But at least the Chamber of Commerce has a real name. And by the way, there are several members of the Chamber of Commerce who are on the other side on this app store issue, like Match.com and Spotify. And I think the progress we need to make is putting some sensible regulations in place on the app stores.
ON COVID-19 MISINFORMATION
As for the Health Misinformation Act, it doesn’t exactly outlaw health misinformation, but it does strip away the Section 230 protection from lawsuits of social media companies that allow COVID-19 or vaccine misinformation onto their sites. But the definition of this misinformation will be the purview of Health and Human Services, right?
Yes. This is how a lot of laws work. You allow the agency to make the definition instead of a bunch of senators trying to come up with words at midnight.
I was just on a phone call with all of our hospitals in Minnesota. Their leadership was saying they spend 30% of their time trying to talk people—including employees—out of things they believe that [they saw on] social media. It’s just not what we should be doing in the middle of a medical emergency. Why I like this bill is it’s narrowly tailored for misinformation related to vaccines in a public health emergency, so it’s very targeted on what’s happening now.
The bill stipulates that a social network can be stripped of protection against lawsuits if it is algorithmically amplifying misinformation posts. But, as a practical matter, how will we know for sure whether social networks are doing that?
When something gets really popular because it has a lot of likes or shares [the algorithms] expand it even more. And the way I look at this is, [social networks] argue First Amendment. Well, yeah, there are First Amendment protections to say what you think, but I don’t think that covers them endangering lives. There isn’t a First Amendment protection for someone yelling fire in a theater, and there shouldn’t be First Amendment protections for a (hypothetical) sound system that amplified that over and over and over again and scared people even more. That’s what their algorithms are.
ON FACEBOOK’S ANTI-RESEARCH AGENDA
That’s probably a good transition over to the New York University researchers whose accounts Facebook recently canceled. You’ve now sent Facebook a letter [with Senators Mark Warner and Chris Coons] asking for a clearer explanation of why it shut down the researchers’ access.
I’ve asked for answers by August 20th that are follow-up questions. It’s about how many accounts of researchers and journalists were terminated, and why they terminated these accounts, what [the researchers] had done that somehow violated their terms of service, and basically getting more answers than just their press release.
Do you think that these NYU researchers were getting at something about the way political ads work on Facebook that maybe Facebook doesn’t want us to know about?
Well, interestingly enough, it coincides with the publication of the book The Ugly Truth, which I’ve just finished reading. They’ve claimed many times throughout the last few years that they want to be so transparent, and then, as you can see from the history in that book, they’re shutting out the thing that would actually get the job done. There’s a difference between rhetoric and real action.
ON RURAL BROADBAND
I understand that much of the content in the infrastructure bill about broadband came from a bill that you authored with Senator Clyburn.
That’s right. And the idea was to stop the Band-Aid approach to expanding broadband but actually do it in a big, big way. And to do that you need the funding, which this bill has to the tune of $65 billion. And we also put $10 billion in at the end of last year [in the December COVID-19 relief bill]. So it’s very near the amount that Clyburn and I had in (our) bill.
But the second thing you need is competition, and this does allow for more entities like electric co-ops or governments getting in to try to cover what the big telephone companies have not done. And then the third thing is this idea of the Commerce Department. Gina Raimondo is playing a major role in this. They will have to approve the state plans, and then if people are holding on to money and not providing the broadband, they can claw back the money because that’s been one of the big problems with broadband. People get funding and then it doesn’t really get done, or it gets delayed. And I think this is going to create a lot of accountability that we haven’t had before.
I’m happy to see it. I know from experience that broadband speeds in much of rural America are still laughably slow.
That’s the problem. You might have broadband, but it’s not high enough speed. In rural areas you’re dependent. A lot of people realize, “You know what, I might want to live in this little town or midsize town. And maybe my husband has a job where he physically goes to work there, but I want to work too, and I want to work remotely at this company and I can actually live in a small town with a lower cost of living, which leads to all kinds of good things, including the small-business startups where the costs are lower.” But none of this is going to happen unless we get high-speed internet to these places.