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A mobile billboard highlighting Facebook's contribution to the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol was parked in Washington, D.C. on January 4, 2022. (Photo: Accountable Tech/Twitter)

Congress Could Help Prevent Another Jan. 6 With Data Privacy Law, Say Campaigners

"The secretive collection, sale, and algorithmic manipulation of our personal data by platforms like Facebook must end," said one activist who called it a "primary driver" of the spread of misinformation.

Jessica Corbett

Nearly a year after a right-wing mob—inspired by lies about the 2020 presidential election results—stormed the U.S. Capitol, civil society groups and Sen. Ron Wyden came together Tuesday to promote federal data privacy legislation for the sake of American democracy.

"Congress passing a strong data protection law in 2022 that limits these practices will be one of the most important steps they can take to safeguard democracy."

The virtual event centered on a petition signed by over 24,000 people and 70 organizations calling on Congress to act. Several speakers took aim at Facebook, which collects user data that informs what content individuals see, including advertising.

Facebook has faced rising scrutiny over the past year, thanks in part to whistleblowers and reporting that exposed how the company has prioritized growth and profit over other concerns—such as how the platform was used to spread lies about the 2020 election that led to the January 6 attack on the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

"The best way to stop Facebook's harms for the whole world is to cut off the fuel supply for its dangerous machine," the petition says. "Tell lawmakers to investigate Facebook and pass a real data privacy law that ends their harmful business model forever."

Wyden (D-Ore.), during the Tuesday event, highlighted various online privacy bills, specifically called out Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and noted the Capitol attack.

"On January 6th, the whole world saw the failure of American institutions, from members of Congress who were willing to undermine our democracy for cheap political attention to military, law enforcement, and intelligence leaders that did not take the threat seriously," Wyden said.

"And it put a magnifying glass on how Facebook is willing to coddle white nationalist, scammers, and anti-democratic right-wing figures for Mark Zuckerberg's personal profit," he continued. "My view is the root cause of Facebook's toxic corporate behavior is the business model."

The senator and campaigners detailed the dangers of data collection and use by companies including but not limited to Facebook—especially unintentional exposure to misinformation.

As Access Now U.S. policy analyst Willmary Escoto put it: "Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, they're using algorithms to make decisions for us. They're stripping away our choice and our autonomy."

"These algorithms decide what we see and what we don't see," she explained, "and the goal is to keep us… scrolling as long as possible and exploiting our data—including data from children—to maximize their profits."

Without meaningful government action to outlaw "data harvesting and surveillance practices that fuel harmful algorithms," Escoto warned, "these corporations' manipulative business models will undermine democracy and harm people worldwide."

Fight for the Future campaigner Erica Darragh also targeted Facebook.

"Facebook's business model has evolved into social engineering via psychological warfare," she declared. "The platform weaponizes user data to fuel algorithmic manipulation in order to maximize ad sales—not just for products, but for ideas like the disinformation that led to the conspiracy theories associated with the January 6 Capitol attack."

"If Congress is serious about addressing the harms of social media, holding Big Tech accountable, and protecting our democracy," Darragh added, "they must prioritize data privacy legislation in time to protect the integrity of the midterm elections."

The calls for action come amid rising concerns about the state of U.S. democracy—which one analysis recently warned is "backsliding"—and congressional Democrats' failure to combat GOP voter suppression efforts at the state level with federal voting rights legislation.

While Republicans have come under fire nationwide for attacking American democracy through anti-voter bills, gerrymandering, and the continued circulation of Trump's "Big Lie" that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Open Media campaigns director Matt Hatfield noted Tuesday that alarm about the nation's political system is bipartisan.

"The secretive collection, sale, and algorithmic manipulation of our personal data by platforms like Facebook must end," he said. "It is a primary driver of the virality of the misinformation, hate speech, and online radicalization that people across the political spectrum are worried about."

"One thing is clear: Facebook and the other digital platforms that rely on an extractive business model will not change on their own."

"Congress passing a strong data protection law in 2022 that limits these practices will be one of the most important steps they can take to safeguard democracy and protect freedom of speech, both in America and around the world," he added.

Public Citizen executive vice president Lisa Gilbert similarly pointed out that fundamental shifts to Big Tech's data practices would have impacts beyond the United States.

"As we approach the one-year 'anniversary' of January 6th, we demand that Facebook be held accountable for the harm it has caused," she said. "Public Citizen stands with our allies to call on Congress to show the world its commitment to a transparent social media ecosystem that protects our digital civil rights and enhances, not hinders, democracy both at home and abroad."

Along with supporting the petition, Public Citizen spearheaded a letter to top federal lawmakers in both parties that reiterates demands for "policy and regulatory reforms that address surveillance-based business models, center civil and human rights, advance climate change action, protect privacy, enhance competition, and leverage existing authorities that support a whole-of-government approach."

"One thing is clear: Facebook and the other digital platforms that rely on an extractive business model will not change on their own," the letter states. "Congress needs to step in."

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