Last week, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, released a Department of Homeland Security report detailing the agency’s intelligence operations targeting racial justice protesters in Portland last summer. Wyden is also the architect of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which established a legal separation between entities like Facebook and the users that create their content. Section 230 is in the spotlight again after a whistleblower testified before Congress about how Facebook harms users, particularly young people. We talk with Wyden about these issues as well as ongoing negotiations in Washington D.C. over the infrastructure bill.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with Oregon’s senior Democratic Senator, Ron Wyden, and as always there’s a lot to talk about. For months now, Senator Wyden has been pushing for more information about federal law enforcement actions in Portland last summer. We now have more details about what happened from an internal report by the Department of Homeland Security. It found that senior DHS officials pushed unfounded conspiracies about anti-fascists, encouraged staff to violate Constitutional rights, and asked staff to illegally search phones. Meanwhile, yesterday, an ex-Facebook employee turned whistleblower testified in front of a Senate subcommittee, reigniting a longstanding conversation about regulating social media companies, an industry Senator Wyden helped make possible. Of course, most of the President’s domestic agenda is still hinging on internal negotiations between conservative and progressive Democrats. Senator Wyden joins me to talk about all of this. Senator Wyden, welcome back.
Senator Wyden: David, thanks for having me.
Miller: So let’s start with the recently released revelations that were in this internal DHS report. What did it tell you about the Trump Administration’s efforts to politicize intelligence gathering?
Wyden: The report was a stunning analysis of the incompetence and mismanagement and abuse of power, during the summer of 2020. And the reason I felt so strongly about this, Dave, is that Oregon school officials, in particular, wanted to make sure that in the future they wouldn’t be dealing with tear gas canisters discarded in a school sandbox, and I believe in doing strong oversight, whether it’s a Republican administration or a Democratic Administration, and I thought it was critical to get those questions that Oregonians had, like the school officials, get them finally answered.
Miller: What for you was the biggest single take away from this report.
Wyden: This was a textbook example of what happens when you send people in with a political agenda, inadequate training and no real effort to correct the kinds of problems that showed up early. This was about politics. We know that Donald Trump tried to say, again and again, Portland is really the problem and he would never really focus on the fact that his people were basically okaying, for example, the use of tear gas near a school in our community.
Miller: The report says that no cellphones or other devices of protesters were searched because there were no warrants. But I’m wondering if you believe that. DHS leaders tried to send a team across the country specifically to do that. They also reached out to members of the Portland Police Bureau, to the Chief, to alert Portland police that they had the technology to search people’s cell phones.
Wyden: I found that answer just strains believability and I had to battle to make sure we got as much information out as we did. You can see in the report these big sections with redactions, the bold black ink. I want Oregonians to know that I’m going to push to get answers to these additional questions.
Miller: About that, let me ask you this, because in the press release following the release of this internal report, which actually just by chance, it was released internally on January six of this year. But you wrote this, ‘There is more information that I believe the public deserves to know but has been redacted.’ And in fact, as you just noted, there are huge big black chunks in pages of this 70 something page report. Are you saying that important information is being kept from the American public in violation of law?
Wyden: What I will say because I’m on the Intelligence Committee, I deal with classified material all the time, there are still important questions that I believe Oregonians deserve answers to and I’m going to keep pushing till they get them.
Miller: Well, you can tell us, hopefully, the questions. Maybe I’m wrong about this in terms of how the world of classified information works. But what are the questions that you still have, given what’s already been released?
Wyden: Dave. What I was able to put out, 76 pages, that showed from beginning to end, the Trump Administration had a politics first agenda with respect to Portland, was as much as I could get out of them. And I will tell you, if you look at the number of letters I had to send, what I had to do as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to make sure that it was clear to two administrations, Republican and Democratic, that I was going to insist on answers for Oregonians, we were able to make the progress that I announced, we’ve also got a first of its kind Law Enforcement Coordination Council, which is gonna give us a chance to get at some of these Constitutional questions. But what I put out was everything that I could put out, consistent with the rules.
Miller: So we’ve been talking so far about the internal review, focused on DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis. But you also got more information recently, directly from the Department of Homeland Security Secretary. This was in response to a series of detailed questions that you had given the agency, and I have to say, the overall sense that I got from Secretary Mayorkas’ responses were, it felt like an agency defending itself; not saying, for example, ‘here’s where we overstepped.’ But you also talked to Secretary Mayorkas recently. What was your conversation with him like?
Wyden: My conversation with him was, ‘these practices that I’ve described, like these tear gas canisters in a school sandbox, must never happen again. Mr. Secretary, do you agree?’ The Secretary said, ‘Yes, I agree.’ That’s what the school officials wanted to hear. And now, as I’ve indicated, I believe it’s my job to continue to watchdog what was agreed to, to make sure that it’s complied with.
Miller: A number of protesters who were injured by federal law enforcement agents last summer, while peacefully protesting, have still not been able to find out even the most basic info[rmation] about who injured them, or what agencies, what particular agencies they work for? So for example, so they could file civil litigation. Is there anything you can do about this in particular, as a US senator?
Wyden: As you know, the report also talks about the fact that ‘badging’ was not exactly a tradition with all of these various agencies. And we’re going to try to get additional information on what happened in Portland on that and make sure that in the future there’s more accountability.
Miller: I can’t help but think that if, what happened for weeks on end in Portland, not just involving federal law enforcement obviously first, and then later, involving local law enforcement, but with the federal involvement, if it had happened in New York City or in Washington D. C., I just assume it would have been a lot bigger deal, that other lawmakers would be talking about it right now. Do you get the sense that other people in Congress outside of the Oregon delegation are truly focused on what happened here?
Wyden: I was very pleased that a number of members of the Intelligence Committee helped me, for example, get what’s called the I and A Report, the Key Intelligence Analysis Report, and I think they did so because they saw that what happened in Portland can happen anywhere else.
Miller: So before we move on to another topic here, maybe more than anything else, what was on display in Portland last summer was a display of the Executive Branch’s extensive power and authority. If whoever is in power chooses to use it, what are you doing right now, specifically to prevent the same thing or worse from happening? Say, in a second Trump presidency?
Wyden: First of all, as I indicated in my conversation with the Secretary, I went down specific practices that we saw in Portland and I wanted to make sure would never happen again. That’s why I mentioned the tear gas canisters. But now we go on to the Law Enforcement Coordination Council, which has really been established because of what we’ve been able to bring to light. And I am going to insist on more transparency, more accountability and for example, additional information, with respect to those kinds of questions you asked about phones.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, I’m talking right now with Oregon’s senior Democratic Senator, Ron Wyden. Let’s turn to Facebook, which was the subject of a Congressional hearing yesterday. A former Facebook executive turned whistleblower talked about the ways of the company, she said, is knowingly manipulating its algorithms to put profits over everything, over a functioning democracy, public health, the health of kids and teens, global security. What have you learned specifically from Frances Hogan?
Wyden: I thought Miss Haugen made a real difference in terms of what she revealed about Mark Zuckerberg and the senior Facebook leaders who refused to fix the clear problems with harmful content. In particular, we saw the need for Congress to pass comprehensive privacy legislation to starve Facebook out of the data that fuels its predatory behavior. And I have legislation, The Mind Your Own Business Act, that would put users back in charge, it creates tough penalties for executives like Mark Zuckerberg who lie about protecting Americans’ private information. I also want to do more to protect the rights of employees to shed light on corporate malfeasance, particularly when it comes to harming users and regular, typical Americans. And I believe more needs to be done for researchers to get access to Facebook’s internal data. When Congress is gonna write real solutions, it’s got to have the facts.
Miller: The first fix that you talked about there, was about privacy, and a bill that you’ve been pushing for a while, The Mind Your Own Business Act. But what do you see as the connection between privacy and the algorithmic manipulations that Frances Hogan was really talking about, basically saying that the company, their business model, is about the stickiest, most provocative, most used content, which often is the exact content which is most destructive for society. What’s the connection between that sort of algorithmic focus and the privacy that you’re talking about?
Wyden: My privacy legislation would starve Facebook out of the data that fuels its most predatory behavior. In other words, Miss Hogan laid out the kind of predatory behavior Facebook had engaged in. But if you have privacy legislation and you write it correctly, you basically starve the company out of that data.
Miller: I feel like I’m still misunderstanding the connection here. When you;’e saying ‘starving them out of the data,’ I mean their business model is eyeballs, that then see ads, right? And then they can also, if they know who’s clicked on something, then they can sell that and say this person likes Volvos and kittens and ice cream cones and then their ads are worth more because they have a sense for what the person likes. But if we go back to people who are worried about body-shaming or about misinformation about vaccines, or ethnically inflamed posts that could lead to a civil war somewhere. How are you going to stop that?
Wyden: Well that’s pretty private information. And what I want to do with my privacy legislation is create tough penalties for executives like Mark Zuckerberg if, for example, they lie about protecting Americans’ private information, which is exactly the kind of thing you asked about. Now. The second point ...
Miller: I still, sorry Senator, I feel like, I’m still just not understanding a basic thing that we’re talking about here. I don’t understand how, if they recognize that a lot of people are clicking on some anti-vax meme, and it’s gotten 1,000 times more engagement than a pro-vaccine message, I don’t see how that’s a question of privacy. That seems to me to be a question of prioritizing popular posts that may have misinformation.
Wyden: When you get information about peoples’ individual choices in life that they don’t want other people to know, that is a privacy issue. And to me, what Miss Haugen said that did have a lot of validity, is we ought to make changes with respect to algorithms. I’ve introduced legislation called the Algorithm Accountability Act that requires companies to audit their algorithms and we make sure that we root out the biased or harmful effects. That’s what’s valid in addition to having tough privacy legislation, and to me, the kinds of examples that you’re talking about, that individuals consider private, right now, it gets out because Facebook can get it’s hands-on practically everything.
Miller: If Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg testifies in response to what we heard from Frances Haugen this week, what in particular would you want to ask him?
Wyden: First of all Mark Zuckerberg spent millions and millions of dollars on ads, calling for changing [Section] 230, which you just mentioned early on, I had led the effort to pass. I mean it seems to me, Mark Zuckerberg isn’t gonna call for anything that would hurt him and Facebook. If anything, changes to Section 230 would further cement Facebook’s extensive market power, by shutting out current and future competitors. So to me, what I’d want to ask him is how come you’re spending all this money to try to change 230? And isn’t it, In fact, to try to help you shut out current and future competitors?
Miller: So, Section 230, I’m glad you brought that up. This is what I sort of referenced obliquely in my introduction. This was something that you did back in 1996 when Mark Zuckerberg was 12 years old, but, and correct me if I’m wrong, but the way I understand this is that it established a kind of legal separation between internet service providers and platforms and the users that create online content, in a great way enabling the social media that would come, a decade and a half later. And when you’ve defended it over the years, you’ve talked about the little guy. In a sense, you did it just now in talking about the protections that Section 230 provides for new startups or unpopular voices or everyday people. At what point though, do the very real harms from the big guy just loom too large?
Wyden: Well, the fact is, when you make it harder to access speech in America, which is what the First Amendment of course is all about, it disproportionately hurts the little guy. For example, videos of police misconduct, posts about ‘Me Too’ allegations would almost certainly have been censored without Section 230.
Miller: Just so I understand the mechanism is you’re thinking there that they would have been censored by an internet service provider or AOL, say, some platform because they would be afraid of getting sued.
Wyden: Correct, it would.
Miller: So it would be, that would be the chilling effect that these platforms would say,...
Miller: ‘...hey, I’m afraid you can’t put this stuff up because someone might not like it and they’ll sue us. So just don’t do it.
Wyden: I’ve been told by people who are involved with groups that really don’t have any clout, and I mentioned situations involving police misconduct, ‘Me Too’ allegations, I mean, the ‘Me Too’ allegations took on on some of the most powerful people in America, and we’ve been told they would have almost certainly been censored without Section 230. And if Congress makes it harder for users to post online, it’s gonna hurt people without political clout, LGBTQ folks and others who call out the powerful or government wrongdoing. And Mark Zuckerberg knows this. I mean, he went out and pushed for this piece of legislation, SESTA and FOSTA that was supposed to be about stopping sex trafficking. What it did, is it just drove LGBT groups offline, and the bad guys went to the Dark Web.
Miller: I want to turn to the Infrastructure Bill and the negotiations over the Reconciliation-based spending bill. It’s turned into an internal Democratic Party debate about the size of this social spending bill. The President asked for $3.5 trillion. A really, a generationally transformative expansion of federal programs. Conservative Democrat Joe Manchin says he would go for 1.5 trillion. The President is now in the middle at about 2.3 trillion. So let’s set aside these negotiations for a second. What level of spending and social program expansion do you think would be best for our country right now?
Wyden: Dave, I repeatedly, during visits home, and I hope to be back again at home, next couple of days, ask about the whole budget debate and nobody asks me the question you just asked. Nobody says ‘Gee, Ron, I’d really like you to talk to me about the top line, whether it’s one point this or two-point that or three-point such and such.’ They say ‘Here is what I really find important to my family.’ We want to see these tax cuts continue, the Child Tax Credit. We really want you as Chairman of the Finance committee to stop big pharma from mugging us at the pharmacy counter. And we also want innovations,. and for God’s sake, we want you to do something about Climate Change because it wasn’t very long ago, it was 115° outside our house, and we want you to work on housing. So what I’ve been doing, and I’ve talked about this with the President repeatedly, is focus on these areas that I believe are most important to Oregonians, we’ll do that, our caucus, the Senate Democrats, and make some decisions on those issues. And then we’ll look at what are called the ‘pay-fors,’ and apropos of that, I can tell you, as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, we will have included in our menu of ways to pay for it, something like the billionaire income tax that I proposed, because we’ve learned, and you all have put this word out recently, that a lot of billionaires don’t pay any income taxes. So they’ve been able to avoid paying taxes for years and years or paying virtually nothing.
Miller: I take your point that it’s an unhelpful way to think about policies, to just put an overall price tag on it. And what matters more to people is actual policies. In this case the policies, though, when you add them up, even though we’re still dealing in a kind of theoretical way because of the way, it’s not even really a bill yet, but the way the system has been set up, but we’re talking about real things, two free years of Community College, Universal Pre-K and Childcare, Medicare expansion and Extended Child Care Tax Credit, cutting prescription drug prices, Paid Family Medical Leave, work to prevent the worst of Climate Change and plenty of other things. So these are the building blocks and that’s why the number, it is important. That’s what the debate is right now, I guess I’m still curious, even if this is not what people ask you when you’re at their kitchen table,what number, overall numbers since this is where the debate is, are you focused on?
Wyden: What I’m focused on Dave, and I just told you about a commitment I have made to Senate Democrats, when they choose what they want as the priorities, whether it’s Clean Energy or Prescription Drugs or Paid Family Leave or Housing, all of which I back, I will be able, as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to say, here is the menu of options to pay for what you care about. And this idea that the first thing you should do is ignore what people say at home, and I was home for essentially all of August, having community meetings, ignore what people say at home, which is, ‘What I care the most about is this, this and this,’ and instead have a Washington argument first, about just plucking a number out of the air. That’s not what folks told me as I got around the whole state in August.
Miller: Finally, the news today is about the possibility the Democrats might change the rules so that a vote to raise the Debt Ceiling, which has to be done in a couple weeks, otherwise the government defaults, that wouldn’t be subject to a filibuster. Do you think that Senators Manchin and Sinema would support that, filibuster-proofing the debt ceiling vote?
Wyden: Yeah. First of all, I’ll tell you my view. My view is that arcane Senate rules should not be used to inflict an enormous amount of damage on Oregonians and the American people. And let’s be real specific on this Debt Ceiling. I’m glad you asked about it. Dave. If not another penny had been spent in 2021, not another penny, the country would still be dealing with this Debt Ceiling issue because bills have already been incurred and during the Trump Administration, as Chairman of Finance Committee, I took a ‘we’re in this together’ kind of approach and we repeatedly helped the Trump Administration pay the bills that had been incurred. What is really in the public interest is to see now, some Republican reciprocity where they help us prevent enormous economic damage, which you have if you default, and in effect, help, just as Senate Democrats helped Donald Trump during his presence.
Miller: Do you think that 50 Democrats will be on board with that?
Wyden: I always say, ‘I don’t do predictions.’ I’m kind of like Yogi Berra, I don’t do predictions, especially about the future. But I’m Oregon’s Senior Senator and I want you to hear, loud and clear, that I’m committed to getting this done now, number one, and I don’t believe these arcane Senate rules should be used to inflict all this damage on Oregon and our economy.
Miller: Senator Wyden, thanks very much for your time today. I appreciate it. I know we went a little over.
Wyden: Thanks for having me.
Miller: I appreciate your time. That’s Ron Wyden, Oregon’s Senior Democratic Senator. We’ll be back after a short break.
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