The Platform Accountability and Transparency Act (PATA) — first released as a draft in 2021 and formally introduced in 2022 — was reintroduced today with minor changes and new bipartisan support. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), would create a program facilitated by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for researchers to request access to certain data from social media companies, and require the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to develop privacy and security protocols for the program.
The bill also includes public transparency requirements for social media platforms, including provisions for public access to advertising libraries and disclosures on “highly disseminated,’’ or viral, content. Online platforms would also have to explain how their recommendation and ranking algorithms work and provide statistics on content moderation actions.
Researchers or journalists who responsibly collect and analyze publicly available data from social media sites would also receive legal protections if they adhere to privacy, security and public interest work requirements.
Notably, a provision to revoke controversial Section 230 protections from platforms that fail to comply with approved data requests from researchers has been removed from the updated bill.
“Social media platforms shape the information that billions of people across the globe consume, but we still know far too little about how they operate and the impact they have on each of us and our society. Right now, Congress and the public have no way to verify whether or how safe these products really are,” Sen. Coons said in a release.
The legislation now has six initial co-sponsors, including continued backing by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and new support from Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Mitt Romney (R-UT).
“Social media platforms have given rise to new threats to our national security, our mental health, and our children, and we must better understand how these companies operate and their effect on society,” said Sen. Cornyn.
The Washington Post endorsed a draft version of the bill last year, and the updated legislation now has the backing of the Council for Responsible Social Media, American Psychological Association, Mozilla, and children’s online safety organizations.
“PATA is the key to unlocking the black box of social media, and a necessary component of any social media reform,” said former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, who now co-chairs the Council for Responsible Social Media.
Other bills before the Senate and House include components related to researcher access to platform data. The Kids Online Safety Act, sponsored by Sens. Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) includes a component for researcher access to study social media sites for specific harms. PATA was filed as an amendment to the STOP CSAM Act, but withdrawn by Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) during a May 11 Senate Judiciary markup session.
Following the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council meeting last week, there are signs that the Biden administration may seek a deal with European regulators to harmonize access for U.S. researchers with provisions in the forthcoming EU Digital Services Act (DSA). A joint statement from the White House and European Commission following the summit said that “it is crucially important for independent research teams to be able to investigate, analyze and report on how online platforms operate and how they affect individuals and society.”
Under the DSA, Europe is working to implement its own mandated measures for researchers to access data from the largest online platforms, including most major social media companies and search engines. The technology companies and European regulators must iron out a process for sharing data while protecting the privacy and security of users. The European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) launched a working group last month to explore developing an independent intermediary body to facilitate platform data sharing with researchers under the DSA, and a call for public comment from the European Commission on how best to facilitate access closed last month. (I joined with others from my organization, the Stanford Internet Observatory, to submit a comment.)
Reps. Lori Trahan (D-MA) and Jay Obernolte (R-CA) called for international cooperation to facilitate social media research in a recent letter to President Joe Biden. Trahan has proposed similar bills with Democratic support, most recently the Digital Services Oversight and Safety Act.
Former Trahan staffer Anna Lenhart recently wrote in Lawfare that “both technological and regulatory developments are moving forward rapidly—with significant consequences for democratic societies—and stakeholders across sectors and jurisdictions have the opportunity to join forces to better understand the information environment and uphold democratic values.” PATA’s reintroduction signals progress in that direction.