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Senators defend new federal agency for tackling big tech

A federal agency with a specific focus on digital platforms will help address growing concerns around AI, data privacy and competition, two U.S. senators argue.

Two U.S. senators seeking to create a new federal agency for big tech regulation reaffirmed support for their proposal on a panel Tuesday. They advocated for the agency as the best way to address burgeoning concerns around artificial intelligence, social media, data privacy and competition.

Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) introduced the Digital Platform Commission Act in May. The proposed bill aims to gather industry experts and create a new Federal Digital Platform Commission that would serve as creator and enforcer of rules for digital platforms. As calls increase for regulating AI, establishing a federal data privacy law and heightening antitrust enforcement, the senators argue that a new agency will help streamline those efforts beyond the capabilities of existing agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ).

There are challenges facing passage of the Digital Platform Commission Act, including a lack of bipartisan support for a new agency, as some disagree with the idea of a specific agency to oversee big tech. However, Welch said during a panel hosted by the Brookings Institution that he believes the dominance of big tech will help drive the legislation forward.

The tech sector has come to dominate.
Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.)

"The tech sector has come to dominate," Welch said. "It's dominating the way we do business. It's dominating the way our kids get raised. It's dominating the way businesses compete. It is coming at some significant expense. It's happening in all of those areas, and it affects you whether you're from a red state or a blue state."

New agency would focus on big tech regulation

Welch said not only do existing federal agencies lack the resources to keep up with big tech, but the facets of society that big tech companies affect continue to increase and outpace legislation.

"Congress simply can't keep up with the changes and various components of the attack on privacy, mental health of kids, competition and how small businesses are being affected," he said.

While AI has captured the attention of governments around the globe -- President Joe Biden signed an executive order on AI Monday -- Welch said the issue is bigger than AI alone and demonstrates the need for big tech regulation.

"There's a growing awareness that you simply can't leave all these important societal questions that really do have an effect on our communities and our families to the titans of tech, whether it is the social platforms or emerging AI," he said.

Bennet echoed Welch, saying, "This can't just be about AI."

"We have to acknowledge, to recognize our failure to regulate the social media platforms in a way that reflects the public interest," Bennet said during the panel. "That has to be part of this."

The proposed federal agency would provide enforceable oversight over large tech companies -- something that's been lacking for years, said Tom Wheeler, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Wheeler spoke on the panel with Bennet and Welch.

"The reality is, we have been ignoring the basic issues of the digital area," he said during the panel. "Can we get to dealing with the challenges of AI, which are humongous, without dealing with the challenges we've been sweeping under the rug for the last two decades about privacy, competition, truth and trust?"

Part of the issue with existing federal agencies is that their governing statutes date from the industrial era and have not evolved to keep up with modern companies, Wheeler said. The FTC and DOJ have brought antitrust cases against tech giants Google and Meta, but both cases face challenges.

Wheeler served from 2013 to 2017 as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), where he said he struggled with outdated statutes.

"Running the FCC in the digital era, trying to use a statute written in 1934 when television didn't even exist, is what taught me this lesson," Wheeler said. The new agency proposed by Bennet and Welch must be agile enough to promote innovation while protecting the public interest, he said.

Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget Editorial, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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