Social media has become a central part of most Americans’ lives. Yet, very few are given a behind the scenes look at the policies and design choices online platforms make that have major implications on our health and wellbeing. Transparency — and the ability to understand what decisions are being made, how the technology operates, and what impact it has on users — is a crucial component in the push for oversight and accountability of social media. That is why, here in the U.S. and in Europe, policymakers are working to establish a framework that would give vetted researchers the ability to examine the design choices, policies, and operations of social media platforms, in order to analyze the impact and better inform the public. Last week, U.S. Representatives Jay Obernolte (R-CA) and Lori Trahan (D-MA) sent a letter to President Biden urging his administration to establish an international research center to facilitate cross-platform research on the information environment.
Alix Fraser, Director of the Council for Responsible Social Media, issued the following statement applauding the work of these Members and calling for greater coordination between American and European policymakers in the push for platform transparency:
“Right now, social media platforms are operating largely behind a cloud of secrecy, offering only sporadic and incomplete disclosures that leave policymakers and the American public in the dark about their products. In order to shed light on these powerful platforms, American policymakers should build on and align with the work of European regulators, ensuring a robust and consistent standard for platform transparency across the globe.”
Fraser continued: “The letter issued by Representatives Obernolte and Trahan is an important step towards a more open and accountable social media ecosystem. An international research center would help coordinate researcher access across the globe and ensure that future American transparency policies align with this emerging international standard. Creating an international research center also recognizes the borderless nature of the modern information environment. I hope the Biden Administration follows the recommendations of these leaders.”
Lastly, Fraser called on lawmakers to advance research access proposals here in the U.S.: “It isn’t enough for American lawmakers or tech platforms to wait for European partners. By making transparency voluntary, American policymakers are letting these companies grade their own homework when it comes to the impact social media is having on American children, our communities, and U.S. national security. We can’t afford to wait any longer. We need to unlock the box that the platforms are guarding so closely. That’s why proposals like the bipartisan Platform Accountability and Transparency Act are so crucial to advancing data-driven, evidence-based solutions to these harms. It’s time for American lawmakers to step up and lead.”
In the European Union, Article 40 of the landmark Digital Services Act creates a new transparency framework, under which the largest online platforms (including all of the major social media platforms) must provide vetted, independent researchers with access to data required to complete approved research projects. The exact guidelines of Article 40 are still being negotiated in Europe. Both platforms and researchers are working to establish a framework that is replicable, consistent, and enforceable across a continent with varying data privacy and researcher ethics laws.
Here in the U.S., bipartisan proposals like the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act (PATA) — which is set to be reintroduced in Congress by Senators Coons (D-DE), Cassidy (R-LA), Klobuchar (D-MN), and Cornyn (R-TX) — offer a path forward toward researcher access for American academic and nonprofit institutions. At the same time that policymakers work to advance proposals like PATA, it is crucial that these solutions are synchronized with the EU’s DSA to ensure a robust and consistent standard for platform transparency across the globe.
The Council for Responsible Social Media, a project of Issue One, is committed to advancing these reforms alongside our work to ensure that social media platforms are safer for children, protected from foreign manipulation, and secure for users’ privacy. Learn more about the Council for Responsible Social Media.