SEN. GRASSLEY: Big Tech undermines privacy, civil liberties and constitutional freedoms every American should hold sacred

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Last week, I held a dozen meetings in Iowa to have dialogue with my constituents. As many of my colleagues know, I hold face-to-face meetings with Iowans in all 99 counties, every year. It’s been a privilege to get to every county, in every corner of the state, every single year, for the past four decades.


People have asked me why I do this. The simple answer, in our system of self-government, I’m one-half of representative government, and my constituents are the other half. My county meetings are a good way for me to keep in touch and see for myself the challenges and the successes going on in communities across my home state.


In recent years, it’s become an important way for me to counter disinformation, correct misinformation and sidestep censorship that Americans digest daily in the mainstream and social media.


Big Tech and big data companies, much like state surveillance and Big Brother, share something in common. If left unchecked, they can undermine the privacy, civil liberties and constitutional freedoms every American should hold sacred and should never take for granted.    


Responsible digital citizenship is more important than ever. Consumers must be mindful about their digital footprint. Anything typed into a search engine is effectively a digital diary saved in the cloud for a rainy day. Consumers must be mindful about what’s posted, downloaded, shared and liked on social media platforms.


The road to responsible and accountable digital citizenship isn’t solely the consumer’s responsibility. Social media companies, as well as content and internet providers, aren’t exempt from ethical corporate stewardship, especially when the welfare of the next generation is at stake. Keep in mind that human trafficking is a pervasive crime that grooms and blackmails young people – on Main Street and in online communities.


Big Tech isn’t all bad. Technology companies have revolutionized our way of life and how we connect with friends and family. During the pandemic, technology delivered invaluable connections for e-commerce, digital learning, teleworking and telehealth. However, that doesn’t give Big Tech and big data companies license to undermine constitutional protections or disregard harmful impacts their products and services have on civic life and public trust in our American democracy.


Titans of technology need to take responsibility for the products they build, sell and profit from fellow Americans. Policymakers and regulators have a duty to shape and enforce the rules of the road. Big Tech and all of its stakeholders, from content makers, social media platforms and internet service providers, bear responsibility to understand how their business model puts freedom at risk. 


Red flags are popping up all over the digital frontier – from recurring data breaches to online censorship, misuse of user profiles, and the recent mess with an online brokerage app. In the last two presidential elections, Big Tech has had a big influence on information that appeared – or didn’t appear – in Americans’ social media feeds. Big Tech can’t hide behind its business model when its revenue streams cash in on an infrastructure which sows division and distrust among Americans. This ecosystem has been exploited to radicalize political extremism and mobilize civil unrest. Social media companies have reaped the benefits of their enterprise. They bear some responsibility to help repair cracks in the architecture of our civic institutions and heal the wounds festering in American life.  


Economic freedom allows social media companies to create a business model that grows their bottom line. Americans need to understand their personal data is harvested for profit. Advertisers buy the data to influence consumer and voter behavior. The bottom line for every American ought to be ensuring constitutional protections aren’t archived – out of sight, out of mind – in the annals of history.


I’m not saying Big Tech is a bad actor, but I am calling on Big Tech to be a good actor. Take responsibility for the online ecosystem you created. Congress also must take a good, hard look at Section 230 and whether there’s a need to reform immunity laws on the books.


We’ve seen what happens when conversations take place online versus in-person. Take it from me. The tone of conversation is neighborly and civil when I talked with Iowans last week in Forest City and Ogden. However, incivility outflanks kindness tenfold in the responses posted to my Twitter account.


We need to work together to heal the unholy civil divide that’s taken root online. It’s bleeding into our way of life, pitting neighbor against neighbor, and harming the ability of elected leaders to build bipartisan consensus for the public good.


I’m here to put social media platforms, the mainstream media, Congress and the American public on notice. The digital landscape needs a reboot. What we do with this space will influence how young people participate in civic and political life for generations to come.


In the coming days, I’ll continue this conversation in a series of speeches. I’ll be talking more about social and mainstream media, censorship and freedom of speech on college campuses.