Remarks at Silicon Flatirons

Senator Michael Bennet
13 min readFeb 6, 2023

Remarks at Silicon Flatirons Conference — As Delivered

As Dean Inniss said, and as I already know, I understand that the theme for this year’s conference is “The Internet’s Midlife Crisis.” And for all the reasons that the Dean said, as a 58-year-old senator, I am highly qualified to address the second half of that idea — not as much the first.

But instead, I do want to share some broad observations about the Internet’s dominance — and in particular, the dominance of the biggest digital platforms — over our economy, our society, and our democracy, as we meet here on this beautiful day, this morning.

It’s easy to forget how different the world was just 20 years ago, when Phil Weiser organized the first of these conferences.

At the time, General Motors topped the Fortune 500 list. Apple was 285 on that list, and Amazon didn’t even make the cut. Twitter was still an idea somewhere in the recesses of Jack Dorsey’s head. Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t old enough to vote, even though he’d likely already acquired the undeveloped view of the First Amendment that he holds to this day. No one on this planet had ever heard of Gmail, or YouTube, or TikTok.

That was only 20 years ago, but it might as well have been 200.

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 over 80 minutes a day on the app — that is three weeks of every year.

I’d say speaking as a parent and a citizen, you could probably learn almost anything but Mandarin if you focused on it three weeks out of the year. We are using that for TikTok.

Facebook now hosts 2.7 billion “friends” — half a billion more souls than Christianity. Twitter has fewer followers, of course, than Facebook, but those followers include every single politician, every journalist, every TV producer in America — withering our political debate to 280 characters and to those effervescent posts.

In just two decades, a few companies have transformed much of humanity’s daily life.

How we amuse ourselves. How we discover, learn, and shop. How we connect with friends, family, and our elected representatives. How we pay attention. How we glimpse our shared reality, or how we don’t.

This transformation is a staggering testament, of course, to American innovation. And we can all think of a dozen ways these platforms have improved our lives.

I, for one, have been entirely relieved of the stress, the tremendous burden — and for me, it was one — of sitting in rush hour traffic, wondering if there is a better route. I am now confident that Waze is guiding me — my own personal North Star.

But this dramatic shift from our analogue to our digital human existence has never been guided — or even informed, I would argue — by the public interest. It’s always been dictated by the unforgiving requirements of a few gigantic American enterprises 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 been to turn a profit and protect that profit through economic dominance. And they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Until their recent battering, the market capitalization of the biggest tech companies equaled 20% of the entire stock market — a fifth of the entire stock market — a share that one sector has not seen in our nation for 70 years. And, through it all, unlike almost any small business down the street in Boulder, these digital platforms have remained almost entirely unregulated — moving fast, breaking things, and leaving the rest of us to glue something of our world back together.

There’s another way these companies are really different from the brick-and-mortar companies in Boulder: digital platforms aren’t burdened by the fixed costs of an analogue world. Beyond the blinking lights of their energy intensive server farms, their business is in the Cloud, a place where no one works and that requires little physical investment. They have no need to use their profits to invest in America by building infrastructure.

Unlike their industrial forebears, today’s platforms have devised a new, digital barrier to entry to protect their profits and their economic dominance. We know that digital barrier as the network effect.

As everyone here knows in this room, 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, who hoover up our identities for their profit; 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 five tech companies now have a market cap greater than our entire aerospace, defense, construction, road, and railway industries combined.

In the name of building this barrier to entry — this network effect — they have stolen our identities and our privacy and addicted us to their platforms.

The platforms’ imperative to grow big and stay big posed a basic question for them: how do you get people onto your platform, and keep them there? For platforms like Apple and Amazon, it’s to sell products people want, offer subscriptions, and if you’re lucky, enmesh them in their closed ecosystem. For social media platforms with free services, like Meta, Twitter, and TikTok, the answer is more sinister: 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 their core business model. And although this particular business model has bestowed enormous value on a few companies, it has imposed profound costs on everybody else.

Millions of Americans have surrendered to private companies an endless feed of data on their every movement, interest, communication, and contact, along with their voices, faces, and fingerprints — all for the convenience of being able to be served up self-gratifying political content on YouTube, less traffic, or better movie recommendations. And most Americans have made that trade without even really knowing it.

Any suggestion that we have made that trade fairly is ludicrous. It mocks consent. The lawyers in this room know contracts of adhesion when they see them. And as a society, we never asked how much of our identity or our privacy we were willing to trade for convenience and for entertainment. And until today, those questions have been resolved entirely to the benefit of the platforms’ bottom line.

I suppose it would be one thing if…

There is the great Phil Weiser. Another round of applause for not missing my entire speech.

I suppose it would be one thing if the only consequence of digital platforms’ use of our data were to sell better advertising — even if that would be a fairly pathetic concession of our own economic interests in this world. As every parent knows and every kid suspects, better advertising is not the only consequence of these business models.

Over the years, digital platforms imported features from gaming and from gambling — from brightly colored displays to flashing notifications to ‘likes’ to perniciously random and incessant dopamine hits. And they unleashed secret algorithms to reverse engineer our most basic human tendencies to seek out tribe, approval, conformity, threat, to curate an almost irresistible feed of content.

Americans now spend a third of their waking moments on their phones, which we check an average of 344 times a day.

Speaking as a parent who’s raised three daughters in this era, we certainly have not agreed to run a science experiment on our children with machine learning algorithms, the effects of which almost no employees at the social media companies themselves even understand. And while we’re still coming to understand the specific role that social media plays in the epidemic of teen mental health, the early evidence gives us a lot of reason to worry.

Here’s what we do know: By 2018, half of American adolescents said they were online “almost constantly.” And as social media took off, teen mental health took a nosedive — especially among teenage girls, like my girls.

Teen anxiety, depression, and self-harm surged, not just in our country, but in Canada and Britain. One in four teens reported that social media makes them feel worse about their lives. Girls who use social media heavily are two or three times as likely to say they are depressed, compared to those who use it less often, or who use it not at all. In 2018, suicides for kids age 10 to 24 increased 60 percent, compared to 2007. So did adolescents reporting a “major depressive episode.”

Meta’s own research found that Instagram made “body images worse for one in three teenage girls,” and that teens know social media is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop using it. And as America’s kids spend more time online, they’re getting less sleep, exercise, and in-person interaction. They’re less happy. They’re the most connected generation in human history, and they’re also the loneliest.

The parents I’ve met all over Colorado have deep concerns about what social media has done to their kids. And I’ll say here — and I don’t put all of this epidemic at social media’s feet — but, I was with some people this week, and I said to them, you know “when I hear that a child or young person the age of my kids has died in Colorado, I find myself no longer asking “what was the accident they had?” You know, “did they have leukemia, or cancer?” I find myself asking“was it Fentanyl, was it suicide, was it guns?”

That’s the country that we’re threatening to pass onto the next generation of America. That’s not the country that I grew up in.

All of my young staff and my two eldest daughters universally say how lucky they were to avoid middle school in the age of social media. Their young siblings, like our youngest daughter, have not been so lucky.

I’ve heard many expressions of concern over the years about this,but I have to say the most poignant expression of this concern were the moms that I met in the Mississippi Delta, where my wife Susan grew up — one of the poorest places in America.

One after the other told me their kids don’t read anymore, because no book can compete with their phone — even as Silicon Valley executives who designed those phones sometimes send their kids to digital detox camps each summer. These parents work two or three jobs, can’t afford childcare, and have to compete for their child’s attention against this algorithmic poison. They’ve never stood a chance.

My constituents are most worried about their kids and about their families, but they also worry a lot about our democracy in this era of social media dominance. And they’ve got a lot of reason to be concerned.

When I first joined the Senate in 2009, it was the summer of the so-called “Twitter Revolutions” in Egypt and Libya and Tunisia 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.

It didn’t take long for tyrants to turn it against democracy. The dictators who once feared social media soon harnessed it for their purposes — to track opponents, to dox [critics], and flood the zone with propaganda. Nobody understood this better than Vladimir Putin, himself. He saw the vast and unregulated power of social media over our democracy, and he exploited it ruthlessly.

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 sowing discord in the U.S. political system.” They sought to fracture America across every conceivable line — race, religion, class, sexuality, and politics — playing both sides with over 10 million tweets and nearly 4,000 fake accounts, some of which actually inspired Americans to show up, to gather, and to protest, you know, their own government.

And we let it happen. In large part, because we struggled to distinguish — in fact, we couldn’t for a year and a half distinguish — between the Russian propaganda and our degraded online political conversations. We should ask ourselves what that says about the nature of our political conversation.

I was running for reelection that year, here in the state of Colorado. And when I later joined the Senate Intelligence Committee, I began to realize that this problem extended far beyond our borders. It’s why, three years ago, I wrote to Mark Zuckerberg warning him that Facebook had become authoritarians’ what I call “platform of choice” to suppress their opposition.

I also warned him that Facbeook’s insatiable drive for growth had given the company power over countries that they barely understood. And the consequences have been horrific. 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, Sri Lanka, and Kenya, just to name a few. And on January 6, 2021, here in the United States of America

In the weeks before January 6, President Trump, our first president who ran his campaign and his administration almost exclusively through the social media platform of Twitter, incited a mob to invade our Capitol.

It would never have happened without social media.

Social media is where the Big Lie caught fire. Where platforms gave the Big Lie the ring of Truth through sheer repetition. Where algorithms mixed cocktails out of pedophilia rings, Jewish cabals, and QAnon rumors — intoxicating dentists and soccer moms with a seditious rage.

I remember sitting in a windowless basement in the Capitol on the 6th. We watched CNN as our fellow citizens invaded the U.S. Capitol with their racist banners, flags, and their anti- Semitic T-shirts to “save” an election that had never been stolen — that had not been stolen.

And while the Senate was in that embarrassing position, unable to certify an election for the first time in American history, Mosow and Beijing transformed those images into propaganda, as I knew they would, in their campaign to discredit democracy in the eyes of the world. Beijing claiming the riots were a sign of “internal collapse;” Moscow observed that “American democracy [was] limping on both feet.”

In these moments, we cannot bury our heads in our digital feeds. We are called upon to defend democracy and burnish our example at home. And we can help by reining in the vast power of digital platforms and reasserting the interests of the American people — and our public interest.

The Americans who came before us would never have known about algorithms and network effects, but they would have recognized well the challenge that we face. And their example should guide our way.

The Founders themselves, as everybody in this law school knows, devised an elegant form 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, FDR and the Congress enacted the Federal Communications Commission. After the 2009 financial crisis — in our own time — 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 have been powerless as a result.

And that’s why, last year, I proposed to create a Federal Digital Platform Commission. It’s essentially an FCC for digital platforms — an independent body with five, Senate-confirmed commissioners empowered to protect consumers, promote competition, and defend the public interest. The Commission would hold hearings, conduct research, pursue investigations, establish common-sense rules for the sector, and enforce violations with tough penalties that can make a difference.

Some may say we don’t need it — we already have the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice. And these agencies are staffed by hard-working public servants. I used to work at the Department of Justice, and I know that. But they don’t have the expertise.They don’t have the tools, or time to regulate this new sector.

And as we fight to empower the American people, there are other important steps we can take now rom limiting targeted ads to kids; to reforming Section 230; pursuing antitrust remedies; establishing a digital bill of rights for parents and kids; and compelling more transparency from platforms to allow policy and research to be done. And in the case of TikTok, Apple and Google should remove it from their app stores today and stop Beijing from hoovering up more data on 100 million Americans.

Whatever we do, we cannot accept another 20 years of digital platforms transforming American life with no accountability to the American people.

We still haven’t come to grips with the full cost of our inaction so far. The cost to our privacy and to our identity. To our time and attention. The trust in our democracy and the faith in our fellow citizens. The self-confidence of millions of American teens, and the lives of far too many.

None of the problems I’ve described today are unique to America, but America bears a unique responsibility to solve them. After all, it was American companies that blazed the trail into the Digital Age, and invited all of humanity to follow.

We now live in a world they created, with its wonders and conveniences, but also its risks, dangers, and difficult questions.

The same platforms that amplify a protestor’s cry for freedom in Iran also equip tyrants around the world to suppress democratic movements. The same technologies that liberated anyone to say anything also unleashed a perpetual cacophony, leaving us all 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, and angry, and addicted every day.

Overcoming all of this will not be easy. But we can’t simply hide under the covers, 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 that we fail to make.

Our objective — my objective — is not to hold the world back. In Colorado, as Phil knows, as this faculty knows, as the students know, we have always embraced innovation. But we also understand that not all change is progress, and that it’s our job to harness those changes toward a better world.

We are the first generation to steer our democracy in the digital age. And it is an open question whether democracy can survive in the world digital platforms 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 our exercise in self-government. To level the playing field for America’s teens, for our parents, for our teachers, for our small businesses, who for 20 years have battled alone against some of the most powerful companies in human history.

Success won’t be easy, but this is a fight worth having. It is a fight worth winning. And if we succeed, we may not just help to save this democracy, we may help to save it all over the world.

Thank you for having me today, I really appreciate it.

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