A new bill introduced in the House by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., would create a regulatory agency to govern some aspects of the “Big Tech” sector, and ensure algorithms on digital platforms are fair and safe.

The Digital Platform Commission Act would create a regulatory agency known as the Federal Digital Platform Commission, which would have five commissioners appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

The Federal Digital Platform Commission would be staffed by experts in the field who would work to solve issues within the Big Tech industry. The new agency would have the authority to create new rules to protect consumers, as well as “promulgate rules, investigate rule-breaking, conduct research, and impose civil penalties.”

“Whether we like it or not, the decisions that Big Tech make about their digital platforms have major consequences for all aspects of our society,” Rep. Welch said in a press release. “Congress has for too long taken a hands-off approach to Big Tech and that needs to end.”

“That’s why I am introducing this bill to help ensure that the public interest is protected online, not just these companies’ bottom lines. It’s time for a strong regulatory body that can help protect our children and our democracy from the harms that persist online,” Rep. Welch added.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has introduced companion legislation in the Senate, which he said follows the long precedent in American history of establishing an expert, sector-specific body to protect the public interest.

“While digital platforms play an ever more central role in our lives, American consumers remain at the mercy of outdated laws designed for an analog world,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge.

“Rep. Welch’s bill would create a Digital Platform Commission guided by the public interest and empowered to address the proliferation of deceptive practices, anticompetitive conduct, and deliberate disinformation designed to undermine our democracy,” Feld added. “The Energy and Commerce Committee should move swiftly to hold hearings and advance this vital legislation.”

Defining Digital Platforms

A summary of the bill’s provisions provided by Rep. Welch’s office says the legislation defines a “digital platform” as “an online service that serves as an intermediary facilitating interactions between consumers, or between consumers and entities offering goods and services. This includes online services directly offering goods and services, provided they are not a de minimis part of the digital platform’s overall business.”

The summary also says that the law would exclude websites of news organizations, and small businesses based on a definition of “small digital platform business,” which will be made by the Small Business Administration.

Further, the bill summary indicates that the proposed commission may pay more attention to “systemically important digital platforms.”

The summary says that those platforms would be characterized by:

  • Being “open to the public on one side and has significant engagement among users, which may take the form of private groups, public groups, and the sharing of posts visible to some or all users”;
  • Conducting “business primarily at the interstate or international level, as opposed to the intrastate level”; and
  • Having operations with significant nationwide economic, social, or political impacts, which the Commission will define through a public rulemaking process.

In determining whether a platform had nationwide economic, social, or political impact, the summary says the commission may consider factors such as:

  • The ability of the platform to significantly shape the dissemination of news;
  • The ability of the platform to cause a person significant, immediate, and demonstrable economic, social, or political harm by exclusion from the platform;
  • The platform’s market power; and
  • The dependence of business users on the platform to reach customers.
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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.