On Senate Floor, Bennet Makes the Case for a New Federal Body to Regulate Digital Platforms and AI
Remarks on the Senate floor making the case for a new federal body to regulate digital platforms and AI — As Delivered.
DPCA Floor Speech
Thank you, Madam President. I’m sorry that I didn’t have the chance to say thank you to our colleague from Connecticut for his speech tonight about loneliness in the United States.
I was grateful that he gave it, grateful that he’s in the Senate, grateful to know that another parent of young kids has the perspective that he has shared tonight, because I think it’s so important. And strangely enough, I’m here to talk about something similar tonight.
Well, first, Madam President, I’ll put it away, because it’s not supposed to be on the floor, but I wanted to come here tonight to talk a little bit about this smartphone and the world of social media, the world of machine learning, algorithms, and generative AI that has now been put at our fingertips.
The rise of smartphones and social media is one of the most rapid, profound, and I would argue poorly understood transformations in American life in our entire history.
If you had asked me when I was the age of the pages here, when I was growing up, you said to me, someday, Michael, there’s going to be a device — well, here is the device — there’s going to be a device that looks like this.
It doesn’t even have a wire attached to it — that would have been astonishing, to begin with. How could an electronic device not have a wire? But it doesn’t have a wire.
And if you said to me, not only does it not have a wire, you can FaceTime anybody on planet Earth, the way Jim Kirk and Mr. Spock Facetime-ed each other. The presiding officer knows what I’m talking about. These folks may not know who Mr. Kirk was, or Captain Kirk was, and Mr. Spock was.
But the idea that you could reach somebody and communicate with them on video, on a telephone or device that had no wire, that alone would have been shocking.
If you had said, well, let me tell you something else about that device. I said okay, what else? What else can you tell me about it?
Well, you can buy any book that’s ever been written by humans, basically, on that device. And if you want it, you can make a choice — you can have it digitally and it will download immediately on your device, or you can order it and it can be at your house by tonight. You know, if you’d rather have a print version of a book, rather than getting it digitally.
If you had said to me — I’ll tell you something else, Michael, it will translate any language that you care to hear. I was today with the CEO of Google, who was in my office, talking about one of their projects that is now to help recover and sustain lost languages, or languages we’re in danger of losing in this country, around the world, which is I think a worthy project. We definitely, in my state, are at risk of losing Native American languages that really are at risk.
In any case, if you said to me, you can translate any language or you can translate yourself into any language, you know, and somebody said what do you think that device is worth, in 1983
or 1987 when I was graduating from high school or college, I think I probably would have said — I can’t imagine what it’s worth. Millions of dollars. Millions of dollars.
To have every book that’s ever been published, that’s in every library in the world? Millions of dollars. To be able to translate every language that you can translate? Millions of dollars.
And if you told me it only cost a few hundred dollars, which it does, and that everybody on planet Earth would have one, which is almost, in many ways, the case, I would have asked what you were smoking. But it’s true. it’s true.
That’s the world we’ve inhabited for almost 20 years. It’s not new.
The digital age, the information age, the age of ubiquitous smartphones and social media, and the handful of digital platforms that control them. And for all of the extraordinary convenience and extraordinary productivity, and entertainment that these technologies have allowed as a country, we still haven’t come to grips with the profound cost to our economy, to our society, and to our democracy. And that’s before we even consider AI, which is what everybody around here is talking about these days, what some have called the most consequential technology for humanity since the invention of fire.
But unlike fire, this technology can improve itself, and it has the potential to move faster and transform more than any innovation in our history, for better or for worse.
Even in its early days, generative AI already demonstrated the power to write, to code, to animate, and even compose in ways that would have been absolutely unimaginable 20 years ago or ten years ago, to say nothing of when we were in school.
And it’s easy to forget how different the world was just 20 years ago. 20 years ago General Motors topped the Fortune 500 list. Apple was 285 and Amazon didn’t even make the cut.
Twitter was still an idea somewhere in the recesses of Jack Dorsey’s head. Mark Zuckerburg was barely old enough to vote, even though he likely already acquired the undeveloped view of the First Amendment that he seems to hold to this day.
No one on this planet had ever heard of Gmail or TikTok or ChatGPT. That was only 20 years ago, but it might as well have been 200 years ago, Madam President.
Today, Americans spend over two hours a day on social media — more time socializing online than in person. The average TikTok user in our country spends 90 minutes a day on the app, more than three weeks a year.
Facebook now hosts 2.7 billion friends, half a billion more souls than Christianity. Twitter has more followers — I’m sorry, Twitter has fewer followers, but they include every single politician, probably almost every single person in this chamber, every journalist, every TV producer in America, withering our political debate to 280-character effervescent posts.
And in two decades, a few companies — less than a handful, really — have transformed much of humanity’s daily life: how we amuse ourselves; how we discover; how we learn; how we shop; how we connect with friends and family and elected representatives; how we pay attention; how we glimpse our shared reality.
This transformation is a staggering testament to American innovation, and we can all think of a dozen ways that platforms have improved our lives. I, for one, have been entirely relieved of the stress of sitting in rush hour traffic wondering if there is a better route. I am now confident that Waze is guiding me like my own personal north star, and that has made an enormous difference to my sense of well-being.
But this dramatic shift from our analog to our digital human existence has never been guided and it has never been informed by the public interest. It has always been dictated by the unforgiving requirements of a few gigantic American corporations and their commercial self-interest.
And what are those interests? To make us better-informed citizens? To make us more productive employees? To make us happier people? Of course not. It’s to turn a profit and protect their profit through their own economic dominance. And they have succeeded
beyond their wildest dreams.
Madam President, that is the market capitalization of some of the largest industries in America. And you can see at the top here, this is Apple and Microsoft and Alphabet, Amazon, and Meta combined. They are at $9 trillion in market cap. To get to $9 trillion, you basically have to add up our entire banking sector, our entire oil and gas sector, and our entire pharmaceutical sector just to give you a sense of the size of the market cap of these companies alone and the reason why they have become so dominant.
And through it all, unlike almost any small business in Boulder, Colorado, or any town in New Hampshire, these digital platforms have remained almost entirely unregulated, moving fast,
breaking things as they famously said, and forcing the rest of us to sweep up the wreckage.
There’s another way these companies are different from the brick-and-mortar companies in
Boulder, Colorado, or New Hampshire. Digital platforms aren’t burdened by the fixed cost of the analog world. Beyond the blinking lights of their intensive server farms, their business is on the cloud, a place where no one works and it requires little physical investment. They have no need to use their profits to invest in America by building the kind of infrastructure these other industries do or had.
Unlike their industrial forebearers, today’s platforms have devised a new digital barrier to entry to protect their profit. It’s different from the way it was in the past. They figured out how to protect their profits and economic dominance, and we know that digital barrier as the network effect.
The network effect means that platforms become exponentially more valuable as more people join and spend more of their waking moments there; more valuable to users because their friends and family are on it; more valuable to the platforms themselves who hoover up our identities for their profit and to train their machine learning algorithms; more valuable for advertisers who pay the platforms for our identities to barrage us with ads; and so valuable to the markets that the top tech companies now equal roughly a quarter of the entire S&P500.
In the name of building this barrier to entry, this network effect, they have stolen our identities and our privacy, and they have addicted us to their platforms. The platforms’ imperative to grow big and stay big posed a very basic question: how do you get people on your platform and how do you keep them there.
For platforms like Apple and Amazon, it’s to sell products people want, to offer subscriptions, and if they’re lucky, enmesh them in your closed ecosystem. For social media platforms with free services like Meta and Twitter and TikTok, the answer is more sinister, I’m afraid: harvest as
much data on your users as you can, feed that data to your algorithm to serve up whatever content it takes to keep people hooked so you can keep selling ads.
That is the core business model. That is the model that’s led to these market caps. And although this particular business model has bestowed enormous value on a few companies, it has imposed profound costs on everybody else, even in places we don’t necessarily expect it.
A senior law enforcement official just told me within the last couple of weeks that social media is “the last mile of every fentanyl and meth transaction in America.” The presiding officer knows that being from New Hampshire. It took my staff 20 seconds to find illegal drugs for sale on Instagram.
I would ask the pages, please, to avert your eyes here, but the image on the left appears to be pills of MDMA. The image on the right shows you how to contact the dealer through WhatsApp and pay him through another app called icker. and below that are all of the places you can purchase this stuff, including Denver, Colorado, where we’re having a terrible, terrible problem with fentanyl and with methamphetamines.
And even though the vast majority of Americans never interact with content like this, we all pay a price. Millions of Americans have surrendered to private companies an endless feed of data on their lives, all for the convenience of being served up self-gratifying political content on YouTube, less traffic, or better movie recommendations. And most Americans have made that trade without ever really knowing it.
The young people that are here today don’t know a world where that trade was something that wasn’t automatically made. Any suggestion that we’ve made that trade fairly I think is ludicrous. It mocks any sense of consent. These are contracts of adhesion, really.
And as a society, we never asked how much of our identity and of our privacy we’re willing to trade for convenience and entertainment. We’ve never had a negotiation with Mark Zuckerberg about that. And until today, these questions have been resolved entirely to the benefit of these platforms’ bottom line.
And I suppose it would be one thing if the only consequences of the digital platform were to sell better advertising, although even that would be a fairly pathetic concession, I think, of our own economic interest; the precious value of our data and our privacy and our identities.
But as every parent knows and as every kid suspects, better advertising is not the only consequence of this model. Over the years digital platforms have imported features from gaming and from gambling, from brightly colored displays, to flashing notifications, to likes, and they unleash secret algorithms to reverse engineer our most basic human tendencies to seek
out pride, approval, conformity and curate an almost irresistible feed of consent.
Americans spend almost a third of their waking hours on the phone which we check on average 344 times a day. Speaking as a parent who has raised three daughters in this era, we certainly have not agreed to run a science experiment on our children with machine-learned algorithms that the companies themselves barely understand at all.
And while we’re still coming to understand the specific role social media plays in the epidemic of teen mental health, the early evidence gives us plenty of reason to worry. Here’s what we do know: in 2006, Facebook became available to the general public. The following year, Apple released the iPhone. By 2012, half of Americans had a smartphone, today everyone has one.
Everybody’s got one, I think, except Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, who is still using a flip phone.
A similar story unfolded with teens and with social media. By 2012, about half of teens use social media. Today, 95% of teens use it.
When my parents excoriated me — and they did, just as your parents excoriated you — for being glued to the television in the 1970’s, the average teen watched TV for four hours a day. Today, teens are on their screens twice as long; half are online almost constantly. More than one in five tenth-grade girls spend seven or more hours a day on social media.
That’s 35 hours a week — in France, that’s a full-time job.
As our children retreat into a digital world of someone else’s making, they pay for it. They’re paying for it with less sleep and exercise and time with their friends, as my colleague from
Connecticut was talking about. And all of this has contributed to an epidemic of teen anxiety, to depression, and to loneliness, especially among teenage girls. Today, girls who use social media heavily are two to three times as likely to say they are depressed compared to those who use it often or not at all.
Since the introduction of smartphones and social media, we’ve seen a dramatic and unprecedented rise in depression among Americans under the age of 25. And to be fair, I’m not saying social media is the only cause of this, but as the father of three daughters who have grown up in its shadow, I know it’s played a role.
Kids are in despair in our country, Madam President.
Today, almost half of teens believe they can’t do anything right. Almost half of teens say I don’t
enjoy life and my life is not useful. And all of these numbers began to rise around the time smartphones and social media began to pervade the country and hook a generation to their
screens. And over this same period, we have tragically seen suicides of young people increase 60 percent compared to 2007.
I see this crisis of teen mental health everywhere I go in Colorado. Parents tell me about how social media has undermined their children’s sense of well-being, and especially girls’ body image and sense of self.
A teenager told me that, quote, the electronic bullying follows me home. There is no escape, she said, at any hour, at any day. I felt the panic of a parent who can’t fix it and make it better. I felt like there is nothing that I could do, that it was beyond my control to make it better.
It has become common, now, at the end of my town halls for parents to come up to me — and
they’re usually not people, or they’re often not people that have come to the town hall to listen to the town hall. They’re people who might be working the slide projector or might have set the chairs out for people to sit in. Then they come to me after the talk is over, after the conversation is over, and they’ll say something like my daughter is 5'10" and she’s 105 pounds, and her self-confidence is in tatters because of the way she’s interacted with social media and the way that it’s shredded her body image.
All of my young staff and my two eldest daughters universally say how lucky they are to have avoided middle school in the age of social media or to have gone to middle school before there was social media. Their younger siblings aren’t so lucky, and they know that about their younger siblings.
You know, maybe the most poignant expression of this concern were the moms that I met in the
Mississippi delta in my wife’s hometown of Marianna, Arkansas, which is the county seat of Lee County, Arkansas. One after the other of these moms told me that their kids in this rural, poor
county in America, that their kids just don’t read anymore because no book can compete with their phone, even as the Silicon Valley executives who design these phones send their kids to social media detox camps every single summer.
That’s not something available to these parents in Marianna. These parents work two or three jobs, they can’t afford child care, and they have to compete for their child’s attention against algorithmic poison.
They never stood a chance and neither have their kids. And now, these parents also have to
compete with generative AI, virtual reality, and the power they bestow to fully immerse yourself in the digital world.
My constituents in Colorado are most worried about what digital platforms have done to their kids and their families, and I’ll tell you, I don’t have a bunch of data tonight about the causal link between social media and their phones and the mental health epidemic that’s going on in America, especially among American youth. But there is no doubt that we’re having it — that epidemic — there’s no doubt that it correlates to the advent of the phone and to social media.
There’s no doubt it’s been compounded by COVID and the effects of that. This has been a hard time to be a young person in our country, to be a high school student, to be a college student, to have your life interrupted by a once-in-a-generation — once-in-100-years pandemic, on top of
everything else. But I think about all these kids, like my daughter Anne who spent so much time in her room, at home, on that phone.
And, when I was superintendent of the Denver public schools 15 years ago, and we were working, focused, so much on student achievement. It’s amazing the way things have changed.
When I was asked about this, about education in America, long after I had been superintendent but before COVID happened, I had an easy answer back then. And my answer was mental health, mental health, mental health.
And that was pre-COVID. There isn’t anybody in America who thinks that things have gotten better since then.
This is a tough time to be a kid in our country.
It’s a tough time to be a kid because of this dynamic. It’s a tough time to be a kid because we haven’t — as the senator from New Hampshire has told us here over and over and over again — we haven’t figured out how to stop this epidemic of fentanyl in this country so that we’re living in that time now, unlike when I was superintendent, where kids have to lobby their school nurses to be able to put antidotes in the nurse’s office so their friends don’t die because they took one pill that was labeled a prescription drug and that pill killed or almost killed them.
We didn’t worry about that when I was superintendent 15 years ago.
And this is off-topic tonight, but add onto that the fact that, in America, this is the only country in the world where the leading cause of death for kids is guns. And two-thirds of that are people killing people, other people — assaults or suicides — only 5% are accidents.
This is a tough time to be a kid in America, and I would argue that a lot of what we’re dealing with here is manmade — human-made.
It’s not just a natural occurrence out there somewhere in the world. We have to come to grips with it. We have to understand it. Among other things, we need these companies, like other companies in the past, to share their data so that independent researchers can help us make the assessment we need in order to make the judgment that we need to make — to provide oversight. Kind of like the tobacco companies finally had to cough up the data way back when.
And as I say, my constituents are most worried about these issues, about their kids and about
their families. But they also worry a lot about the effect on our democracy. And they have a lot of reason to be concerned about that too.
When I first joined the senate, it was around the time of the so-called Twitter revolutions in
Egypt, in Libya, in Tunisia that we then heralded as the Arab Spring. At the time, people in Washington, and around the world, hailed social media as a powerful tool for democracy.
And it didn’t take long, though, for tyrants to use those tools against democracy. The dictatorships who once feared social media soon harnessed it for their purposes — to track opponents, to doxx critics, and flood the zone with propaganda.
Vladimir Putin knew this better than most. He saw the vast and unregulated power of social media over our democracy and he wielded social media as a digital Trojan horse to inflame our division and undermine trust in our democracy. And the damage afflicts us to this day.
Ahead of the 2016 elections, Putin flooded our social media with disinformation. According to the Mueller Report, the Russians conducted social media operations with the goal of showing discord in the US political system — we know that, of course.
They sought to fracture our country along every conceivable line: race, religion, class, sexuality, politics, playing both sides. They didn’t care. Half of it was pro-immigrant and half was anti-immigrant. Half is pro-Muslim, half is anti-Muslim. What they wanted was to divide this country, to divide this democracy.
By the way, it took us more than a year to figure out this was Russian propaganda and not just our own political discourse, which says a lot about our own political discourse which we might want to reflect on. The Russians played both sides with over ten million tweets and nearly 4,000 fake accounts. Imagine what Putin would have done with generative AI — which most of us
would fail to distinguish from reality.
And back in 2016, as I said, we let it all happen. Because we couldn’t tell the difference between this discourse and our discourse.
I published a book, Madam President, during my not-very-well-noticed campaign for president about this because I kept running into a senior at a nursing home in New Hampshire who was repeating stuff that I knew because it was Russian propaganda. And he was saying, well, what are you going to do about it?
I’m not saying you couldn’t find something on the internet that’s true — Obviously there’s a lot there. But he was repeating Russian propaganda and he didn’t have any idea. And when I joined the senate intelligence committee after that, I began to realize that this problem extended far beyond our borders. And that it was serious and that’s why three years ago I wrote to Mark Zuckerberg warning him that Facebook had become authoritarians’ platform of choice to suppress their opposition around the world. And the consequences have been horrific.
In Myanmar, the United Nations named Facebook a significant factor in stoking communal violence against the Rohingya after it repeatedly ignored calls to remove hate speech and hire more staff who actually knew the country.
Around the world, we’ve seen fake stories on these platforms spark violence in India, in Sri Lanka, in Kenya. And on January 6th, 2021, here in the United States of America.
In the weeks before January 6, President Trump, our first president who ran his campaign and administration through Twitter incited a mob to invade this Capitol.
I remember sitting in a windowless room in the Capitol on January 6th, we watched CNN as our fellow citizens invaded the U.S. Capitol with their racist banners and anti-semitic t-shirts to save an election, they said, that had not been stolen.
In these moments, we cannot bury our heads in our digital feeds. All of us are called upon to defend this democracy and to burnish our example at home. And we can help — the people in
this body can help — by reining in the vast power of digital platforms and reasserting the interest of the American people and our public interest.
The Americans who came before us would never have known about algorithms. They wouldn’t have known about network effects, but they would recognize the challenge that we face and their example should guide our way.
The founders themselves designed one of the most elegant forms of checks and balances to guard against tyranny. After Upton Sinclair exposed ghastly conditions in meatpacking facilities, in 1906, Teddy Roosevelt joined Congress to create the Food and Drug Administration. As broadcasting became more central to American life in 1934, F.D.R. and Congress created the Federal Communications Commission. After the 2009 financial crisis, President Obama and Congress established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
In each case, Congress knew it lacked the expertise to oversee complex new sectors of the economy so it created independent bodies to empower the American people.
Today, we have no dedicated entity to protect the public interest and we’ve been powerless as a result. And that’s why, Madam President, last year I introduced a bill to create a Federal Digital Platform Commission and I reintroduced it earlier this month with our colleague Senator
Welch from Vermont.
And we essentially proposed an FCC for digital platforms — it’s not really more complicated than that — an independent body with five Senate-confirmed commissioners empowered to protect consumers, to promote competition, and to defend the public interest and the public’s interest.
The commission would hold hearings, conduct research, pursue investigations, establish common-sense rules for the sector, and enforce violations with tough penalties. And most important, the agency would finally put the American people in a negotiation with digital platforms that have amassed vast power beyond our imagination and over the American people’s lives and the lives of our children.
Previous congresses knew they never had the expertise to approve or disapprove new drugs, for example. We don’t have a debate on this floor about that, because we knew that expertise better lies with the FDA.
We don’t write the safety guidelines for airlines on this floor, either. We have a commission that will do that. Why would we expect Congress to be able to regulate technologies that are moving at quantum speed like AI? It’s not possible.
And perhaps this is why Sam Altman, the creator of ChatGPT, testified that we urgently need a new regulator. Assuming that he wasn’t a deep fake.
Some may say we don’t need a new government agency, we already have the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice. These agencies are staffed by hardworking public
servants, but they don’t have the expertise or the tools or the time to regulate this brand-new sector, and that was before generative AI.
And I want to say, on that note, I’m very grateful to Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, for his remarks earlier today. I completely agree that we need to chart a responsible course between promoting innovation in AI and ensuring the safety of our children and our democracy.
And while I think a dedicated expert agency is the best solution, and I believe others will come to that judgment as well, I welcome the debate that we’re going to have on this.
And I’m the first to admit I don’t have a monopoly on wisdom on anything, but certainly on
this. But whatever we do, we cannot accept another 20 years of digital platforms transforming American life with no accountability to the American people. We’re still coming to grips — to terms with the harm from 20 years of unregulated social media. We haven’t come to terms with that. Every parent knows that.
I shudder to imagine what our country will look like if we allow the same story to work its way out with AI. That particular technology may be new, but we face a familiar American juncture. We’ve been here before.
In the late 19th century when gilded age robber barons abused the coal, oil, and railroad industries to stifle competition, exploit workers and undermine democracy. Government stepped in to assert the public interest and looking back, it is hard to imagine American life without the victories of that era — from basic antitrust laws and consumer protections to the direct election of Senators and the income tax.
And I think looking forward; we have similar questions to answer. What will our response be to the digital robber barons of our era that addict our children, corrode our democracy, and plunder our privacy, our identity, and our attention?
Will we allow them to continue transforming American life according to their self-interests? or will we safeguard the interests, civil liberties, and freedoms of the American people?
Especially for young people that are listening to this, who might say there’s nothing you can do, the cat is out of the bag, you can’t hold back the ocean — my answer to that is not very helpful because it’s to recall something that the young people here won’t remember, but it’s in my mind when I’m talking to families and to young people in my state, and listening to them talk about the mental health impacts of what they’re facing.
It reminds me of when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire in Cleveland. And that moment, for those of us that were around then, was so extraordinary because that unbelievable image of a river in America burning, catching on fire, flames shooting into the sky, that is what finally forced us to come to grips with the pollution that we were allowing to flow freely into our watersheds and into our communities, same thing with our air, and we finally did something about it, and the country is better as a result.
There is another case, by the way, just like those environmental regulations where I think it’s critically important for the United States to lead. I think it’s critically important for the United States, with our set of values and our commitment to democracy, to help set the international standards here and to not take standards from authoritarian regimes like China, for example.
And that’s a big risk if we don’t act here, but I think we will, and I think we can, and I think that’s going to give us not only — not only give the American people a chance to negotiate with these companies but give America the chance to lead on questions that are fundamentally important for humanity.
None of this is going to be easy, it never is, but when the stakes are nothing less than the health of our children and the health of our democracy, we have no choice but to try, and we should try.
I think we have a unique responsibility to lead here, not just for the reasons that I just said but also because, after all, it was American companies that blazed the trail to the digital age and invited all of humanity to follow. We now live in the world that they created, for better or for worse, with its wonders and with its conveniences, but also with its risks and dangers and difficult questions.
The same platforms that amplified a protestor’s cry for freedom in Iran also equipped tyrants around the world to suppress democratic movements. The same technologies that liberated anyone to say anything also unleashed a perpetual cacophony, leaving all of us screaming louder to be heard.
The dazzling features that brought the world online have also trapped us there, more connected but more alone, more aware but less informed, enthralled to our screens, growing more anxious, more angry, and addicted by the day.
Overcoming all this will not be easy, but we can’t simply hide under our covers or scroll through Tiktok and hope these problems solve themselves. That is our job. The health and future of our children lie in the decisions that we make or the decisions that we fail to make.
Our objective, my objective being here tonight, is not to hold the world back.
In Colorado, we have always welcomed innovation, but we also understand that not all change is progress and that it’s our job to harness these changes to a better world. We are the first generations to steer our democracy in the digital age, and it’s an open question whether democracy can survive in the world that digital platforms have created.
I may be wrong, but the evidence so far does not fill me with confidence. It fills me with urgency — urgency to reassert the public interest, to reclaim our public square and exercise in self-government, to level the playing field for America’s teens, for parents, for teachers, and small businesses who, for 20 years have battled alone against some of the most powerful companies in human history.
This is a fight worth having. This is a fight worth winning. And if we succeed, we may help save democracy, not just in this country but around the world.