First-of-Its-Kind Legislation Would Empower an Expert Federal Body to Provide Comprehensive Oversight of Digital Platforms
Washington, D.C. – Today, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet introduced the Digital Platform Commission Act, the first-ever legislation in Congress to create an expert federal body empowered to provide comprehensive, sector-specific regulation of digital platforms to protect consumers, promote competition, and defend the public interest. The new Federal Digital Platform Commission would have the mandate, jurisdiction, and broad set of tools to develop and enforce thoughtful guardrails for a sector that has been left for too long to write its own rules, with serious consequences for everything from teen mental health to disinformation to anticompetitve practices that have hurt small businesses.
“As a country, we should take pride that most of the world’s leading tech companies were founded in America. But they aren’t start-ups anymore. Today they rank among the most powerful companies in human history. It’s past time for a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to regulating digital platforms that have amassed extraordinary power over our economy, society, and democracy,” said Bennet. “We don’t have to choose between letting digital platforms write their own rules, allowing competitors like China and the E.U. write those rules, or leaving it to politicians in Congress. We should follow the long precedent in American history of empowering an expert body to protect the public interest through common sense rules and oversight for complex and powerful sectors of the economy.”
The new Federal Digital Platform Commission would have five commissioners appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. It would be staffed by experts with a background in areas such as computer science, software development, and technology policy. The Commission would have a broad mandate to promote the public interest, with specific directives to protect consumers, promote competition, and assure the fairness and safety of algorithms on digital platforms, among other areas. To fulfill its mandate, the Commission would have the authority to promulgate rules, impose civil penalties, hold hearings, conduct investigations, and support research. It could also designate “systemically important digital platforms” subject to additional oversight, regulation, and merger review.
Today, the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission largely oversee digital platforms. Despite their admirable work to enforce existing antitrust and consumer protection laws, they lack the expert staff, resources, and tech-oriented culture necessary for robust and sustained oversight. They also have jurisdiction across the entire economy, raising questions about their capacity to provide focused oversight. Moreover, both bodies are limited by existing statutes to react to case-specific challenges raised by digital platforms, when proactive, long-term rules for the sector are required. Finally, although antitrust and consumer protection laws are essential, they do not capture the broader range of concerns implicated by digital platforms, from disinformation to addiction to the evisceration of local journalism.
Bennet’s bill follows a long history of Congress establishing expert, sector-specific federal bodies to oversee complex sectors of the economy that have outpaced existing regulation -- from the creation of the Food and Drug Administration in 1906 following Upton Sinclair’s reporting in The Jungle of abhorrent conditions in the meatpacking industry, to the creation of the Federal Communications Commission in 1934 to match the growing importance of telecommunications, to the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
“Sen. Michael Bennet’s Digital Platform Commission Act brings national policies into the digital age. New technologies require new oversight mechanisms. Sen. Bennet’s bill is significant not only in the establishment of a new expert agency, but also in the new agile regulatory model the agency is to follow. Policies and procedures that worked in the industrial era have proven insufficient for the challenges of the internet era. Sen. Bennet’s bill is visionary in its approach to the challenges of the digital 21st century,” said Tom Wheeler, former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“The protection of citizens in the online world would benefit from a federal regulatory agency with the necessary authority to take appropriate action, and we appreciate Senator Bennet’s leadership in facilitating an important discussion about the need for and shape of federal legislation in this space. To be sure, state enforcers have undertaken and are taking important actions to combat the harms of large social media platforms. Going forward, however, it is clear that optimal and effective oversight will ultimately require a federal regulatory framework and federal action. The Federal Digital Platform Commission Act is an important step in that direction and will enable and drive more attention and conversations about how the federal government can responsibly address these critical issues to our economy, democracy, and lives,” said Phil Weiser, Colorado Attorney General.
“Digital platforms have become a vital part of our economy, our democracy, and our lives. Despite their critical importance, we have virtually no rules to make sure these platforms treat people fairly. As a result, we have a handful of companies that utterly dominate our online lives in ways we can’t even begin to understand – let alone hold accountable when they inflict harm on consumers. Senator Bennet’s bill is the first bill that proposes a consumer-centered approach that would put a full-time ‘cop on the beat’ to make sure that online platforms treat people fairly and follow the law. The Federal Digital Platform Commission would be empowered to shine a bright light on these businesses so that the public can hold them accountable and protect the public interest. Public Knowledge is pleased to endorse this important bill,” said Harold Feld, Senior Vice President, Public Knowledge.
“Senator Bennet’s bill provides a comprehensive approach to improving the performance of the digital platforms that have become central to American life. It will preserve the undoubted value that the platforms provide while discouraging their misuse. In its respect for the First Amendment and freedom of expression, it is a badly needed American response to problems that were not foreseen in the early days of the internet, but that now have become sufficiently widespread that they demand urgent attention,” said Phil Verveer, Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School (speaking in a personal capacity).
"The Digital Platform Commission Act builds the capacity a 21st century democracy needs to align our rapidly changing digital landscape with public interest,” said Center for Humane Technology.
“The Digital Platform Commission Act is a welcome step toward consolidating regulatory oversight of digital companies in a single independent agency. It will supplement the efforts of existing competition and consumer protection agencies to fully address the nation’s digital challenges. The DPCA specifically authorizes the new digital commission to promote competition in digital markets and protect users from abuse by digital platforms. It will have the resources and the mandate to work with the industry and civil society to put in place sector-specific rules aimed at the unique risks arising from the power of dominant digital platforms,” said Mark MacCarthy, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University, Communication, Culture & Technology Program and Senior Fellow, Institute for Technology Law and Policy at Georgetown Law.
"Senator Bennet's Digital Platform Commission Act fills a large gap in current law, creating a framework to spur immediate competition in digital markets alongside existing antitrust enforcement. It brings relief to small businesses and consumers from harms caused by dominant digital platforms while enabling those platforms to innovate and adapt to new market conditions in an environment of regulatory certainty. Among other features of the law, it empowers the new federal body to require dominant platforms to allow data portability and interoperability, while subjecting their algorithms to oversight to ensure they are not biased or harmful to users," said Fiona Scott Morton, Theodore Nierenberg Professor of Economics, Yale School of Management.
“Digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok have become the way people get information and have civic conversations, but misinformation about the pandemic, public health, elections and more are polluting our online spaces and having real-world negative impacts in our communities. Unlike other industries, digital platforms are subject to very few requirements for transparency and accountability. We welcome proposals such as Sen. Michael Bennet’s, as well as public conversation about oversight for digital platforms now and in the future,” said Nancy Watzman, Colorado Media Project Advisor and former Director.
“The Colorado Children’s Campaign supports Senator Bennet’s efforts to establish a Federal Digital Platform Commission. The digital platforms where our youth spend a significant amount of their time have different priorities and incentives that may not align with the best interests of our children’s well-being. Looking critically at platforms’ impact on mental and behavioral health from a data-driven and people-centered perspective is so important. The Children’s Campaign hopes that such a Commission will uplift the voices and lived experiences of youth throughout the process of developing recommendations. We are deeply encouraged by Senator Bennet’s leadership in the creation of this Commission and its potential to prioritize Colorado’s kids,” said Kelly Causey, President, Colorado Children’s Campaign.
“Stronger oversight institutions, such as the commission proposed in the Digital Platform Commission Act of 2022, have the potential to strengthen the government’s capacity to promote safe, just, and innovative digital products. This type of new Digital Platform Commission could also conduct and fund needed research on the power of digital platforms, on the design of better products and systems, and on the impact of technology regulation,” said Dr. Scott Babwah Brennen, Head of Online Expression Policy at the Center on Technology Policy, UNC-Chapel Hill (speaking in a personal capacity).