Stanford law professor calls for digital platform transparency legislation in senate testimony

May 10, 2022, 12:54 a.m.

Digital platform giants, such as Facebook and Google, possess power “unrivaled in world history” over the flow of information, said Stanford law professor Nathaniel Persily J.D. ’98 during a Wednesday session of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law.

The subcommittee, led by chairman Chris Coons (D-Del.) and ranking member Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), invited leading experts on technology, communication, political science and social studies to discuss the future of U.S. government relations with digital platform companies during a hearing on platform transparency. 

Persily ranked among these select witnesses. A decades-long expert in constitutional law, electoral policies and campaign politics, Persily has served as a nonpartisan contributor to legislative redistricting plans in Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York. President Barack Obama also selected him to lead the research of a 2013 bipartisan commission to determine solutions to long poll lines witnessed in the 2012 elections. 

Recently, Persily has focused his research on social media platforms, which he warned during the hearing have become too central to the sociopolitical system to operate with minimal transparency.

“We cannot live in a world where Facebook and Google know everything about us and we know next to nothing about them,” Persily testified before the Senate. “These large platforms have lost their right to secrecy. Their power over the information ecosystem is unrivaled in world history.”

In a 2021 Washington Post opinion article, Persily argued that Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s use of the platform to uncover documentation detailing executive knowledge of drug cartels and human trafficking rings, as well as details of Instagram exacerbating a societal body acceptance crisis, showed that the U.S. government needed to intervene — particularly because a company like Facebook is too large to suffer market repercussions.

Persily described digital platform firms as “information monopolies” that “control all of the information which is now most revealing about social problems.” He added that their power is unprecedented: “we’ve never been in that position before,” he said.  

Perisly contrasted current power dynamics to the pre-internet era, in which social scientists had free access to almost all societal information, as it would come from government surveys and statistics, according to him. 

To mitigate issues concerning transparency, Persily said that laws mandating extensive information sharing would ensure that policy makers in both the U.S. and Europe would not be “legislating in the dark.” He added that transparency measures could inform the public and diffuse much of the rising distrust regarding social media platforms.

Persily also emphasized that transparency measures would encourage social media platforms to make products more socially responsible.

“I think for transparency, what is sometimes undersold is that it will change the behavior of the firm,” Persily said. “I get criticism that it’s weak legislation because it’s not breaking up the companies or it’s not going right after content moderation. But once the platforms know that they’re being watched, they will change their behavior.”

Jed Ngalande ‘23 is the Politics and Government beat reporter for the Stanford Daily.

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