The headline point is not an exaggeration, as we’ll see in a moment.
The senator, meanwhile, is Mark Warner, D-VA. Axios reports that he is circulating a proposal among Senate Democrats for a comprehensive regulatory scheme to “crack down on Big Tech.” And as Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown highlights, the pretext for this far-reaching proposal is – you guessed it – “Russian meddling” via the Internet and social media.
Sen. Mark Warner … starts out by noting that Russians have long spread disinformation, including when “the Soviets tried to spread ‘fake news’ denigrating Martin Luther King” (here he fails to mention that the Americans in charge at the time did the same). But NOW IT’S DIFFERENT, because technology.
“Today’s tools seem almost built for Russian disinformation techniques,” Warner opines. And the ones to come, he assures us, will be even worse.
Therefore, the U.S. government must intervene in a variety of ways, most of which have little if anything to do with “Russian meddling,” to lasso this social media thing down. Axios also alludes to Warner’s vocal concerns about Russian interference.
Warner, who made his fortune in telecommunications before running for office, has been a prominent critic of major social media platforms from his perch as top Democrat overseeing the intelligence committee’s investigation of Russian election interference.
Nolan Brown gives a flavor of some mandates outlined in the Warner proposal (all emphases in original):
Mandatory location verification. The paper suggests forcing social media platforms to authenticate and disclose the geographic origin of all user accounts or posts.
Mandatory identity verification: The paper suggests forcing social media and tech platforms to authenticate user identities and only allow “authentic” accounts (“inauthentic accounts not only pose threats to our democratic process…but undermine the integrity of digital markets”), with “failure to appropriately address inauthentic account activity” punishable as “a violation of both SEC disclosure rules and/or Section 5 of the [Federal Trade Commission] Act.”
Bot labeling: Warner’s paper suggests forcing companies to somehow label bots or be penalized (no word from Warner on how this is remotely feasible)
The technical feasibility of user account verification is one thing. So is the question of whether it’s even constitutional to effectively prohibit anonymous speech.
But then there are the highly intrusive proposals for intervening in the market dynamics of the Internet. Nolan Brown:
Define popular tech as “essential facilities.” These would be subject to all sorts of heightened rules and controls, says the paper, offering Google Maps as an example of the kinds of apps or platforms that might count. “The law would not mandate that a dominant provider offer the serve for free,” writes Warner. “Rather, it would be required to offer it on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms” provided by the government.
An astonishing, what-could-go-wrong mandate listed by Axios:
The report also suggested that, to increase visibility into competition, platforms could put a monetary value on an individual user’s data.
Right. Platforms would be required to do that, but without mention of the federal government looking over their shoulders and telling them how to do it? Give me a break.
Now couple that type of proposal with others listed in the Reason article:
…a requirement that companies’ algorithms can be audited by the feds (and this data shared with universities and others), and a requirement of “interoperability between dominant platforms.”
The paper also suggests making it a rule that tech platforms above a certain size must turn over internal data and processes to “independent public interest researchers” so they can identify potential “public health/addiction effects, anticompetitive behavior, radicalization,” scams, “user propagated misinformation,” and harassment—data that could be used to “inform actions by regulators or Congress.”
All of this is being suggested as the essential remedy for… “Russian meddling.” There’s a lot more; please see both articles linked above, and the original Warner paper at the Axios link.
The manufactured crisis that mustn’t go to waste
Up to now, the two main lines of effort for exploiting the “Russian meddling” crisis have been the Trump presidency (as in, somehow negating it altogether) and the infrastructure for U.S. elections.
There was an extended, thematic drumbeat from the Obama administration and the media in the latter half of 2016 about “securing election infrastructure” – which Obama himself assured us was doing just fine, but which Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson depicted as under relentless assault, and in need of federalizing.
In its very last days, in January 2017, the Obama administration declared U.S. election systems – which are owned, regulated, and operated by the states – to be “critical infrastructure” for homeland security purposes. Thus, the state election systems were to be subject to much greater federal supervision.
This was the same Obama administration, remember, that “stood down” from any effort to actually do something about, you know, Russian intrusions and interference. You don’t respond to Russian meddling by going after Russians and Russian activities, if you’re the progressive Democratic Obama administration. You respond to Russian meddling by seizing effective control of more IT infrastructure in the United States.
So in those terms, the Warner proposal for social media is right in line with what we saw from the Obama administration during and after the 2016 election.
But don’t miss this point. The Warner proposal is based on exactly the same narrative element about the 2016 election. It’s based on the narrative of cyber-oriented “Russian meddling.”
The tale of “Russian meddling” is the gift that keeps on giving. It has seemed all along that that has to be one of the most important reasons for Robert Mueller’s dead-end indictments of Russians, including government officials, in U.S. federal court. Yes, the indictments could allow Mueller to introduce unchallenged evidence – assuming no one shows up to invoke the defendant’s right to discovery, cross-examination, expert witnesses for the defense, and counter-briefings.
But unless what the Russians have done can be linked to some collaborative effect on the fiduciary institutions of the United States – such as a federal agency being suborned, or conspiracy with a U.S. political campaign – there’s nowhere for Mueller, himself, as special counsel, to take this thing further. Ain’t-it-awful impressions of what the Russians did are not a basis for either criminal proceedings or impeaching anyone, even a president whom his political opponents hate to a level of psychotic derangement.
So what was Warner doing in early 2017, again?
Mueller’s tenacious determination to make some kind of point about the “Russian meddling,” however inconclusive and strategically useless to his charter, is one interesting fact in all this.
Another is Mark Warner’s role in that bizarre episode in 2017, when a limited-immunity negotiation with Julian Assange, under which Assange would have demonstrated why the heisted John Podesta emails did not and could not have come to WikiLeaks from a Russian source, was spiked in a rogue effort mounted by James Comey.
The Department of Justice was negotiating with Assange, and one of the key concerns was that without an agreement with him, WikiLeaks was going to expose technical specifics about CIA cyber tools that, among other things, enabled the CIA to spoof the operation of – well, for starters, the cyber-warriors of the Russian government. For a grant of limited immunity, Assange was willing to limit what WikiLeaks released, and also make his demonstration about the provenance of the Democratic email haul in 2016.
The Trump administration thought that was worth seriously negotiating for. But James Comey, still the FBI director at the time, intervened to put a stop to it – by going through Senator Warner. Warner was in contact with Assange through advisor-for-hire Adam Waldman (famous for also being the conduit to Christopher Steele and Oleg Deripaska), and managed to create just enough doubt for Assange to get the deal squashed from his end.
Comey and Warner were apparently both motivated to prevent Assange from introducing an alternative read on the alleged facts of the “Russiagate” narrative.
It doesn’t seem merely coincidental that Warner is now behind a proposal – one of absurdly broad scope – to have the federal government effectively take over social media, on the pretext of protecting the delicate American infosphere from “Russian meddling.”