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Facebook Under-Fire Following New York Times Investigation


Facebook is essential, enormous and successful, a worldwide platform that is increasingly controversial. A New York Times investigation that ran this week found Facebook failed to counter Russian interference it knew about in the 2016 election. It also showed how Facebook lobbied Congress, hired a public relations firm to discredit critics and pursued a public relations strategy called delay, deny and deflect. Of course, this follows revelations last spring that Facebook failed to protect the privacy of its users and has let itself be used around the world as a platform for hate speech, government propaganda and ethnic cleansing. Will a Democratic Congress be more watchful over Facebook? I'm joined now by Congressman David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island. Thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: When your party takes control of the House, you're going to chair a panel that deals with antitrust issues. And you've been quoted as saying Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself. What does that mean?

CICILLINE: Well, I think this most recent revelation is particularly disturbing, and I think it's an example, again, of this - the dangers of a tremendous concentration of economic power that is often accompanied by a tremendous concentration of political power. As it was reported in The New York Times, this is corporate behavior which was used to really discredit activists, to attack competitors and even to attempt to destroy or impede congressional oversight - really, corporate, kind of, thuggish behavior, which is very, very alarming.

SIMON: But what would you do?

CICILLINE: Well, I think the first thing we have to do is really bring in a group of experts who work in this space. We have to first bring in folks from Facebook to understand what really happened, to hold them accountable. One beginning response is really to - some legislation I've been working on, which is the requirement really that technology platforms ensure that data and social graphs are portable so that people have the ability, if you're not satisfied with the protections that you're getting of your data and the rights that they're protecting, that you can take that and go to another technology platform to create some incentives in the marketplace for folks to create alternative platforms. So I think that's one approach, but the first thing we need to do is really understand the magnitude of the problem.

SIMON: How specifically would you like to try to protect consumers? Because simply saying, well, there'll be other platforms you can go to, that's a little late if their data has already been compromised.

CICILLINE: No. I think there's a number of things we can do to protect the privacy of consumers, to make sure the rights of consumers to control their data and how it's used. And then in addition to that, I think you're going to have this competition-based solutions to say, but if you want more protection than that, if you want increased privacy, the marketplace can provide some options. But I think there are a number of good ways, or a number of examples of what California is doing, what the European Union has done, that I think can help guide the discussion here.

SIMON: Congressman, Facebook spreads a lot of money around, as we're beginning to learn - lobbyists and in campaign contributions - or their executives do. And they've hired a lot of people who worked for Democratic politicians. Have they given money to you? Do you worry about Democrats being impartial on this?

CICILLINE: It's one of the reasons that I took the no corporate PAC pledge. So I don't take corporate money from any PACs. But I think it's evidence of a larger problem. That is, that we - we want to ensure that public policy is being developed in the public interest for what's best for the American people. And there is no question that the corrupting influence of money in our political system has produced bad public policy, has produced inaction in some instances. And so this is a large problem, not just with Facebook. It's a problem with corporate interests, you know, generally. If you look at the Republican tax bill, 83 percent of those benefits went to the richest people in the top corporations.

SIMON: But let me ask you specifically about Facebook because The Times also said that it was a Democrat, Charles Schumer, a senator from New York who essentially lobbied - might be exactly the word I mean - his colleagues to go easy on Facebook.

CICILLINE: But my point is Facebook is not the only actor in this. I think it is a serious problem. One of the things I experienced every place I traveled in this country during this campaign cycle is that people have a deep sense that government isn't working for them. It's working for the special interests, the big lobbyists and the, you know, biggest corporations, and they're right in large part. And that's because of the corrupting influence of money in our political system. And we've got to break that connection and restore people's confidence that public policy is being developed in their best interest for the people of this country.

SIMON: Do you see a chance for bipartisan action?

CICILLINE: I do because I think this is a concern to Americans all across this country of all political persuasions. I mean, there's evidence in this reporting about a real campaign to attack competitors, to impede congressional oversight, to discredit activists. I mean, this is really the worst kind of tactics. It's reminiscent of the big tobacco playbook, and we should all be concerned about it.

SIMON: Congressman David Cicilline, Democrat from Rhode Island, thanks very much.

CICILLINE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.