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Sen. Amy Klobuchar says we're behind other countries on Big Tech regulation

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start with an issue that's gone front and center on Capitol Hill in recent days, regulating Big Tech. Lawmakers from both parties have been talking about reining in Big Tech for years for different reasons. But the shocking revelations of former Facebook employee Frances Haugen last week brought the issue new focus.

Haugen, a former product manager, released thousands of internal documents to a federal agency and the media before testifying before the Senate. She said that Facebook's own research confirms the harmful impact of its services but refuses to do anything about it, and it has intentionally misled the public. Facebook released a statement denying these claims. But we wanted to learn what Congress is doing in response to these revelations, so we called Senator Amy Klobuchar. She's a Democrat from Minnesota, and she was on the Senate committee that heard Haugen's testimony. And she's with us now.

Senator Klobuchar, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: Thanks so much, Michel.

MARTIN: So let me say here that Facebook is a financial supporter of NPR. So let me say that. Let me also mention that earlier this year, you wrote a whole book where you dug into the history of antitrust policy in the U.S. You talk a lot in your book about your concerns about the power of Big Tech. So given all that, you were at last week's Senate hearings. Is there something in particular that stood out to you?

KLOBUCHAR: Yes. The first is that Ms. Haugen, after all of the hearings we've had and what we've been pushing for, she may well be the catalyst we need because the time has come for action. And the senators were actually listening to her. And I think they realized - anyone that is a grandpa or a grandma or a dad or a mom realize this just isn't right. And for so long they've said, trust us; we've got this. And that just hasn't worked. And there's been a whole bunch of money thrown around Washington by the tech companies that I think have stopped the action we need - one, privacy laws.

We are one of the few countries in the world, a developed nation, that doesn't have a federal privacy law. The states have been struggling to do it themselves. That would make a big difference. More work on children's issues with online privacy. The third thing is competition policy. You mention antitrust - making sure we also let the market develop innovations. And that's not going to happen if these companies are buying every competitor in sight. And we need better enforcement of the antitrust laws.

And then finally, the algorithms, which I think has contributed greatly to this problem in that these companies - and in particular Facebook - get more and more money every time polarized content goes out. And that has, in fact, been the business model. And it's why they made $51 on you, Michel, in just the first quarter and every user in America.

MARTIN: So to this point - I think you kind of alluded to this. I mean, the Democrats and Republicans haven't agreed on what the problem is. I mean, Democrats have been particularly concerned about the spread of disinformation and amplifying what I think many people thought were fringe views and amplifying them into sort of a bigger deal. Republicans, on the other hand, have been most concerned about regulating content, especially when it comes to conservative ideas. Is there an appetite to regulate Big Tech if your colleagues, to this point, haven't been able to agree on what the problem is?

KLOBUCHAR: There is an appetite. And actually, there has been some agreement. And this gets in the weeds, but both in the House Judiciary Committee and in the Senate, there's starting to be strong bipartisan support to moving on things like app stores and how unfair it is. I know there's some differences. I sure don't agree with some of the stuff they say. But I have found more in common when it comes to what we need to do. And I think you saw that at that hearing, and you've certainly seen it in the antitrust committee.

And by the way, the people of America overwhelmingly agree with us parents who, through the pandemic, have been balancing their toddlers on their knees and their laptops on their desks and teaching their first graders how to use the mute button. They see the kind of content their kids are seeing and how they're getting addicted to this content. And they know there's a problem.

MARTIN: You know, to the question of appetite and will, Facebook - just Facebook - has roughly 2.8 billion users around the world, according to Pew Research. Is this problem one that calls for transnational discussion?

KLOBUCHAR: Mmm hmm.

MARTIN: Is this beyond, really, the ability of one country even to regulate? Is this something that calls for the attention of some sort of a transnational cooperation or discussion?

KLOBUCHAR: Well, yes. And Europe actually has been leading the way with the European Union. You saw Australia get into it in a big way when they were simply trying to charge Google and Facebook for content. And the reply of these monopolies was, well, then we're leaving. We're taking our products and going. Luckily, there was so much world attention, to get to your point, that they finally changed their mind and are - been now working with Australia. So I think what you've seen here is this isn't just about our country alone. And we can actually have a organization with the Justice Department of the United States that's working with other justice departments. That's in play. But we just have to up our game.

MARTIN: That was United States Senator Amy Klobuchar. She's a Democrat from Minnesota. She's also the author of "Antitrust: Taking On Monopoly Power From The Gilded Age To The Digital Age." Senator Klobuchar, thank you for talking with us.

KLOBUCHAR: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.