HH: What you just saw were excerpts from the shows I did and interviews last year with Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. It turns out, I was ahead of the D.C. curve focusing on whether big tech needs big regulation. But boy, that issue broke open this week with demands for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to testify about Election 2016 and Facebook’s role, plus the reports of Donald Trump’s anger with Amazon. Those are the headlines, but the biggest question is what to do. Senator Chris Coons is a Democrat from Delaware. He’s on the Senate Judiciary Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee. He’s floating the idea of setting up an entirely new committee of the Senate to deal with issues of cyber and big tech. Welcome, Senator Coons, always good to see you.
CC: Thank you, Hugh, great to be on.
HH: Let me start with a simple question. Up until now, have members of Congress, both houses and both parties, been intimidated by Facebook?
CC: Well, I don’t know if I’d say intimidated, but perhaps not clear about some of the risks and the downsides that Facebook poses. Most of us use or enjoy or are familiar with Facebook, and social media, Facebook in particular, has been a remarkable tool to connect people around the world and to bring us together as communities. But as the investigation into what happened in the 2016 election has continued, there’s been more and more evidence put forth about ways in which Facebook may well be exploiting our positive views of its capacities, and instead using its business model, which involves hoovering up huge quantities of personally identifying data and selling it to other entities. This now raises, I think, more concerns for Americans. That’s why the Senate Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan basis has asked for Zuckerberg, the founder and leader of Facebook, to come and testify April 10 when we’re back in session.
HH: Hoovering up is a terrific way to put it, Senator. Let’s pause there for a moment and talk father to father, dad to dad. Are you concerned about the amount of just raw data they are accumulating on your children, Facebook in particular, but all of the social sites, from cradle, really, through, you know, some of the millennials go out and open Facebook pages on their kids the day they’re born. What do you think about that?
CC: I do think that certainly, Americans of our generation would be shocked to learn just how much personal information about where we are, what we’re doing, what we buy, what our interests are, is being made commercially available so that other companies can target us more specifically. When I talk to my kids about it, first, they no longer spend a lot of time on Facebook. They think that’s for older folks, and they’re on to other platforms. But second, they’re less concerned about the potential for intrusion, because they’ve lived with it their whole lives. To me, there’s still something vaguely creepy about doing a search on the internet on one device for something I’m interested in, a place to vacation or something to buy, and then have advertisements for that specific vacation spot or product appearing in other venues on other platforms within a matter of minutes. The ways in which big tech is now monetizing that individually identifying data is concerning. And Senator Flake of Arizona and I, he is the chair and I’m the ranking, on the subcommittee on privacy of the Senate Judiciary Committee. We are working closely on planning a series of hearings for later this year on ways in which our privacy is being violated, and ways in which we should, as parents, be concerned about our children’s privacy.
HH: You’re going to get a huge audience for those hearings. Let me show you a quote from CEO Tim Cook, one of the most admired executives in America. He sat down with Chris Hayes of MSNBC, and Kara Swisher of Recode, and said I think the best regulation is no regulation, is self-regulation. However, Cook added, I think we’re beyond that here. Do you agree with him, Senator Coons?
CC: I think we should approach regulation thoughtfully and carefully, because I’ll remind you, all of these big breakthrough tech companies started in the United States. They’ve grown mostly in the United States. And a lot of the economic value of new employment and new opportunities have benefited the United States. But we are at a point where they have grown so quickly and are so dominant, and their business model, I think, so intrusive, that it is deserving of some attention. There are costs to regulation. Regulation can inhibit growth. And so we need to be thoughtful, bipartisan and careful in how we regulate, but I think we’re at a time where some of these players, Google, Amazon, Facebook, have become so significant in our lives and our economy that it’s time for Congress to weigh in.
HH: Now President Trump took a swing at Amazon this week online, and the stock tanked. I both work for Jeff Bezos, I’m a columnist for the Post, and I own Amazon. Those are my conflicts. What did you make of the President taking a swing at Amazon?
CC: Well, the President has a real talent for recognizing things that are of concern to average Americans. And so I was interested that he took the same sort of swing at Amazon that a number of us have in Congress. As you know, I spent ten years in country government. Local governments around the country have been complaining for years that some of these large companies, Amazon in particular, were not paying their fair share on sales tax. Delaware doesn’t have a sales tax, but in lots of places around the country, the loss of sales tax revenue has hurt brick and mortar stores. And Amazon, as it has gotten larger and larger, has been a more and more effective competitor, pushing out of the marketplace small businesses, local businesses that tend to contribute more directly to a municipal or county government.
HH: So do you think that when Mark Zuckerberg comes up to testify, he seems to have conceded that he will do that, that it ought to be in front of a brand new committee? And do you think he ought to be asked to explain exactly why they need so much data, and all the different ways they are repurposing it, because I think it will come to a shock to many Americans, perhaps on the level of the Kefauver Commission when they figure out what the heck’s going on here? Not organized crime, it’s very legal, but it’s just so vast.
CC: I think you’re absolutely right, Hugh, that the average American has no idea how much of their data’s been gathered, and how it’s being sold and resold, and repurposed by other commercial entities. Senator Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado and I, have teamed up to introduce a bill that would create the first new full committee of the Senate since the 1970s. It would be a cybersecurity committee, and it would be made up of the chair and ranking members of the seven Senate committees that have jurisdiction over cybersecurity. So everything from Armed Services and Banking to Intelligence and Foreign Relations. I think it’s important that we stop responding to cybersecurity, privacy and big tech issues in a siloed way, in a separated way across these seven committees of the Senate, and instead have a new committee that brings everybody with jurisdiction and expertise together in one committee. I realize we’re not going to get that passed in the short term, but I think it’s an important policy proposal that Senator Gardner and I are hoping the leadership will take up.
HH: Well, I think it’s a great idea. Let me close by asking again, if you get to ask Mark Zuckerberg questions, are you going to drill down on getting him to explain exactly why they need all this?
CC: Yes, because I think it’s important for average Americans to understand this isn’t just a business model for Facebook. It’s something that has consequences for you, your family, your children in particular, because things that are posted on the internet are not just happy pictures of dogs and cats and birthdays. They’re information about your interests, your tastes, your political leanings, your friendships and your affiliations. And they don’t go away. And they are sold and resold in ways that can genuinely impact you and your children. It’s something I think the average American should be paying more attention to, and we in Congress who are obligated to represent the concerns of average Americans should be taking up and pressing forward.
HH: I couldn’t agree more. I like doing that with a Democrat once in a while, and I want to thank you, Senator, for coming in on Easter weekend to talk with me about it very much. Happy Easter, Senator.
CC: Thank you, Hugh, Happy Easter.
End of interview.