New social media transparency bill would force Facebook to open up to researchers

Senators from both parties in the United States have introduced a bill that would oblige social media companies to disclose platform data with independent researchers.

Democratic senators Chris Coons (D-DE), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Republican Rob Portman (R-OH) announced the measure on Thursday. The Platform Accountability and Transparency Act (PATA) would create new rules requiring social media firms to share data with “qualified researchers,” defined as university-affiliated researchers working on National Science Foundation-approved projects (NSF).

Platforms would be obligated to comply with data requests if research was approved by the NSF, according to the bill’s wording. If the platform fails to disclose data to a qualifying project, it will lose the immunity granted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

In an email to The Verge, Laura Edelson, a PhD candidate at NYU Tandon School of Engineering and principal researcher at NYU’s Cybersecurity for Democracy project, said, “The PATA act is a really complete platform transparency proposal.” “If passed, this legislation will give researchers a meaningful avenue to better understanding online harms and developing solutions.”

The PATA law is the most recent in a long line of bills aimed at penetrating the dark world of social media algorithms. The Filter Bubble Transparency Act of 2019 took aim at algorithmic content distribution, ostensibly requiring consumers to be able to opt out of personalised news feeds and searches. Another bipartisan bill, the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act, suggested changes to Section 230 in 2020 as a way to hold platforms more responsible for content moderation choices. While neither of those laws passed, the latest bill comes at a time when social media firms in general, and Facebook in particular, are being scrutinised more closely in the aftermath of whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony.

While Haugen’s leaks disclosed a wealth of information about the company’s inner workings, some of the most damning information was research suggesting that Facebook’s products may be harmful to children.

Edelson and other researchers from the NYU Ad Observatory project were banned from Facebook earlier this year after the social media platform claimed that their study breached its terms of service.

Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri testified before a Senate Commerce subcommittee earlier this week, answering questions about whether the photo-sharing platform was harming teenage users’ mental health. Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed their displeasure with Instagram and its parent company, Meta, for what they believed to be a lack of action on long-standing safety issues at that hearing.

According to NPR, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told Mosseri, “Some of the big tech corporations have said ‘Trust us.” “That appears to be Instagram’s position in your testimony, but self-policing is based on trust. “The trust has vanished.”