Key U.S. lawmaker backs idea of a global agreement to govern Big Tech

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·4-min read
Damian Collins, chairman of U.K. House of Commons' digital culture and sport committee, arrives to chair a U.K. parliamentary committee hearing in London, U.K., on Thursday, April 26, 2018. (Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Damian Collins, chair of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, in London in 2018. (Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. lawmaker leading the charge to regulate Big Tech giants endorsed on Wednesday an idea put forward by a British politician for an international agreement to govern the principles and standards for companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple.

Damian Collins, a member of the U.K.’s Conservative Party who has worked on the issue of Big Tech for some time now, proposed in a meeting Wednesday that legislators from around the world begin pushing for “a kind of Bretton Woods” agreement for technology. Bretton Woods was the agreement governing significant aspects of the global economy that was hashed out in 1944 near the end of World War II.

Collins, who was named this fall to a renegade group of tech skeptics who call themselves the “Real Facebook Oversight Board,” said the point of such an agreement would be “so that we’ve got good laws in our own countries but also those companies know they can’t get away with allowing things to happen in other parts of the world where the regulations aren’t as tight.”

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who just released a massive report detailing recommendations for cracking down on the four Big Tech companies, agreed. “I think that’s a great next step for us,” he said.

Cicilline was co-chairing a virtual meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation, a group that originated in Europe two years ago and is composed largely of lawmakers from Canada, Great Britain and other parts of Europe. Members from Kenya, India, Singapore, Malaysia and Brazil were also on the list of participants on Wednesday.

Cicilline and Collins made their comments in response to remarks from a Canadian member of Parliament, Charlie Angus.

Angus related how his view of Big Tech has shifted over the last decade, recounting his skepticism as he read a recent article about Vint Cerf, a tech pioneer who has identified himself as an “internet evangelist” and is a vice president at Google.

The article, Angus said, explained how Cerf “has spent decades walking the halls in Washington and other jurisdictions trying to explain the internet to legislators, and how he’s trying to help us learn to get us a better experience.”

“In 2008 I was a sucker for that kind of talk,” Angus said. “But what I’ve learned is that ... we have ceded ground to these companies for too long. I’m not interested in having them come to tell us about user experience anymore. We need to talk about fundamental principles. ... Fundamental concepts like freedom of privacy: These are fundamental rights that are our obligation to protect.”

Representative David Cicilline a Democrat from Rhode Island and chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, speaks during a hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Rep. David Cicilline. (Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Practices like tracking users through their devices and refusing to disclose how algorithms work that affect user experience and behavior need to change, Angus said.

“The damaging effects of having any kind of company can track you, your children, wherever you are at any time and build a profile of you, is a fundamental threat to human rights,” he said. “It’s really up to us to work internationally to lay down these principles of rights — the rights of expression ... but also the right to privacy — that are fundamental.”

Later during the meeting, Cicilline commented on this, noting his interest in “a common document that can drive our work and force us to develop some consensus.”

Cicilline first attended a meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation a year ago, a few months after he launched what he has called “the first major antitrust investigation being conducted by Congress in more than 50 years.”

As chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, the former mayor of Providence has used the panel’s powers to great effect. He’s harnessed resentment and alarm in Washington over the growing dominance of the Big Tech platforms into a coherent set of criticisms that are now set to be put in legislative language and pushed by a Democratic White House.

In early October, the committee released a 450-page report detailing the findings of its hearings and document requests.

“Companies that once were scrappy, underdog startups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons,” the report concluded. “These firms wield their dominance in ways that erode entrepreneurship, degrade Americans’ privacy online, and undermine the vibrancy of the free and diverse press. The result is less innovation, fewer choices for consumers, and a weakened democracy.”

The report recommended a series of proposals for legislation that would restore competition, strengthen antitrust laws and revive the enforcement of those antitrust laws.

“I expect that process to be bipartisan,” Cicilline said recently.

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