Rep. Schiff says lawmakers need to learn technology to legislate

The California congressman, a member of the intelligence committee, says tech regulation is coming, and he hopes more Silicon Valley execs journey to Capitol Hill.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
5 min read

After three decades of largely leaving Silicon Valley alone, Congress is taking a hard look.

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California's Rep. Adam Schiff worries the Facebook you see is different from the one he sees.

It's a feature, not a bug, that Facebook's computer programs use what they know about you to organize posts, news stories and photos just so. That's to ensure you'll spend lots of time on its app or website and then come back for more the next day.

But for Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that investigated Russian meddling in US elections, this key issue is the one thing he wishes he could have discussed this week.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's co-founder and CEO, traveled to Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate Commerce Committee, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee in marathon sessions that stretched to more than 10 hours over two days, not including private meetings. Schiff isn't on either committee, but he watched the proceedings closely.

During the hearings, Zuckerberg came to apologize for having lost control of up to 87 million Facebook users' private data, which was downloaded by an app developer and then reportedly sold to UK-based political data analysis company Cambridge Analytica. The scandal brought long-simmering concerns over trust and potential data mismanagement to the fore as Facebook attempted to respond to the scandal.

The monthlong drama culminated with Zuckerberg's hearings in Washington, where he ditched his typical gray T-shirt, jeans and sneakers for a dark blue suit and light blue tie.

The spectacle of the hearings was carried across television news for hours. What stood out, aside from Zuckerberg's own initial discomfort with the hearings, was some lawmakers' lack of knowledge about even the basic ways tech companies work.

Regardless of the struggles, Schiff said Congress realizes it needs to learn more in order to properly consider any rules for the industry.

Adam Schiff, a member of the House of Representatives from California

California Rep. Adam Schiff is concerned about how algorithms determine what we see on the web.

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"These hearings this week have been with the CEO, but of only one company, and predominantly focused on privacy issues," he said. There are other issues he wants to discuss when it comes to tech.

One is the feedback loop that leads people to read and share certain types of posts, such as political stories from highly partisan sources, that then Facebook serves up to you more and more, which you share even further.

"If the hope is that these platforms can be a force for good and bring people together -- but the way this business model is operating is having an effect of dividing us -- then that's something we need to think about," he said. "The questions is, what obligation do the social media companies think they should take on?"

Here are edited excerpts from CNET's conversation with the congressman shortly after Mark Zuckerberg's testimony this week.

Watch this: Rep. Schiff has a question for Zuckerberg too

Silicon Valley has worked for decades without regulation. Is it time for things to change?
Schiff: I think it is. And interestingly, before this I would hear from people in Silicon Valley who would say, "There's a sense that we're completely against the regulation, but we're not. We actually think some regulation may be helpful." I think there's certainly a strong case to be made for regulation of some kind.

We, I think, have only begun to do our oversight. And it's probably very early still to be prescribing our regulation before we understand exactly how these platforms work.

As you can see in the Senate, there was a lot of lack of knowledge from time to time about how these technologies even work. And I think we need to know a lot more before we say this is the regulation we even need.

That was a key moment this week. How does a legislative body solve this issue when it doesn't fully understand the tech?
Schiff: Well, we solve for it by doing our homework, and that begins with oversight. Silicon Valley and social media are not the only complicated issues that we deal with here. There are any number of very difficult, complex, telecommunications issues which we've had to wrestle to the ground here. Sometimes with more success than others.

Is Congress going to ramp up pressure for other tech CEOs to come testify to Congress?
Schiff: Well, I think that as with most industries, it's far better to be proactive than to be hauled in front of Congress. And so I would encourage companies to reach out and establish a relationship and be proactive on the issues that they should be on notice now, or are coming up, likely to come up, or go away. You know, the discomfort with having to interact with the federal government or with Congress, people are just going to have to get past.

Ranking Democrat On The House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) Speaks To The Media

Rep. Schiff says Congress needs to do its homework.

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Are you a Facebook user?
Schiff: I am.

Did you get an alert about Cambridge Analytica? Did anyone give your data to someone?
Schiff: I did not get one myself and I would have to check to see whether our office got one. But no, i have not.

Do you trust Facebook to disclose and say the right things at  this point?
Schiff: I'm still concerned that Facebook is in reactive mode and trying to determine what they're legally obligated to do, and trying to determine what they should do to prevent being required to take steps that are broader.

But I also think that they understand now -- in a way they hadn't a year ago -- just how their platform can be misused. And what has allowed their phenomenal growth has allowed problems to grow quite phenomenally with it. And they have an obligation here.

Do you think tech companies can step up more?
Schiff: I think so, absolutely. I don't want these issues, as important as they are, to obscure the degree to which social media has been an incredible force for good in the sense of connecting people around the world.

I think that role is going to continue to be incredibly consequential. So the tech companies have the opportunity and, I think, the responsibility to try to further human freedom around the world and make their technologies even more a force for good and less a force for malevolent actors.

CBS News' Alexandra Zuckerman and Blair Guild, both based in Washington, shot video and contributed to this report.

Cambridge Analytica: Everything you need to know about Facebook's data mining scandal.

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