Over the past few years, as my concerns about the media environment we inhabit have grown, I have found Tom Wheeler’s columns and interviews invaluable. Wheeler–for those of you unfamiliar with him– chaired the Federal Communications Commission from 2013 to 2017, and is currently both a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School Shorenstein Center and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.
He’s also a clear writer and thinker.
In a recent article for Time Magazine, Wheeler proposes the establishment of a new federal agency that would be empowered to regulate Internet giants like Facebook. He began the article by noting Mark Zuckerberg’s apparent willingness to be regulated–a willingness expressed in advertisements and testimony to Congress. As he notes, however,
A tried-and-true lobbying strategy is to loudly proclaim support for lofty principles while quietly working to hollow out the implementation of such principles. The key is to move beyond embracing generic concepts to deal with regulatory specifics. The headline on Politico’s report of the March 25 House of Representatives hearing, “D.C.’s Silicon Valley crackdown enters the haggling phase,” suggests that such an effort has begun. Being an optimist, I want to take Facebook at its word that it supports updated internet regulations. Being a pragmatist and former regulator, though, I believe we need to know exactly what such regulations would provide.
Wheeler proceeds to explain why he favors the creation of a separate agency that would be charged with regulating “big Tech.” As he notes, most proposals in Congress would give that job to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Wheeler has nothing negative to say about the FTC but points out that the agency is already “overburdened with an immense jurisdiction.” (Companies have even been known to seek transfer of their oversight to the agency, believing that such a transfer would allow its issues to get lost among the extensive and pressing other matters for which the agency is responsible.) Furthermore, oversight of digital platforms “should not be a bolt-on to an existing agency but requires full-time specialized focus.”
So how should a new agency approach its mission?
Digital companies complain (not without some merit) that current regulation with its rigid rules is incompatible with rapid technology developments. To build agile policies capable of evolving with technology, the new agency should take a page from the process used in developing the technology standards that created the digital revolution. In that effort, the companies came together to agree on exactly how things would work. This time, instead of technical standards, there would be behavioral standards.
The subject matter of these new standards should be identified by the agency, which would convene industry and public stakeholders to propose a code, much like electric codes and fire codes. Ultimately, the agency would approve or modify the code and enforce it. While there is no doubt that such a new approach is ambitious, the new challenges of the digital giants require new tools.
Wheeler proceeds to outline how the proposed agency would approach issues such as misinformation and privacy, and to describe how it might promote and protect competition in the digital marketplace.
It’s a truism among policy wonks that government’s efforts to engage with rapidly changing social realities lag the development of those realities. The Internet has changed dramatically from the first days of the World Wide Web; the social media sites that are so ubiquitous now didn’t exist before 1997, and blogs like the one you are reading first emerged in 1999–a blink of the eye in historical terms. In the next twenty years, there will undoubtedly be digital innovations we can’t yet imagine or foresee. A specialized agency to oversee our digital new world makes a lot of sense.
I’m usually leery of creating new agencies of government, given the fact that once they appear on the scene, they tend to outlive their usefulness. But Wheeler makes a persuasive case.
And the need for thoughtful, informed regulation gets more apparent every day.