Senators battle Facebook, silent on Syria

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., questions Mark Zuckerberg at a Senate committee hearing.

The radio ad took a shot at U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and said to call Jon Tester, the Democratic senator from Montana.

“Tell him Facebook failed consumers,” the ad said. “It’s time for Congress to protect our data.”

Why Tester? I wondered. Although it’s easy to overlook the publicity-shy Steve Daines, he apparently still is in the Senate.


David Crisp

For that matter, why Schumer? He has never run for election in Montana.

Even more to the point, why that issue? Fatter targets are on Montana politicians’ backs.

The ad, it turns out, is one of at least five radio and TV ads targeting Democratic senators, most of them up for election this year. They were placed by the American Future Fund, which aims to “provide Americans with a conservative and free market viewpoint.”

Interestingly, some of the fund’s positions seem as likely to appeal to liberals as to conservatives. The fund wants Congress to protect data on social media, and it advocates for immigration reform that allows the so-called Dreamers to live and work here legally. It wants to preserve a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rule allowing class-action lawsuits against financial institutions. It opposes forced arbitration, legislation imposing caps on medical malpractice awards and federal laws that preempt state tort laws.

But the group’s conservative roots are bona fide. The Center for Responsive Politics says that more than 90 percent of the fund’s money comes from groups with ties to the Koch Brothers. In 2012, it spent $20 million to support Mitt Romney and to oppose Barack Obama’s re-election., a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, has dinged American Future Fund for running misleading or inaccurate political ads about the Affordable Care Act and about the Obama administration. The fund doesn’t disclose its donors, and it has been accused of failing to properly report political expenditures.

The fund finds an easy target in Schumer, a boogeyman for conservatives who has a daughter who works for Facebook and who says in the ad that Facebook “should do more on their own” to reform their data collection practices. Schumer has praised both Facebook and Amazon and has said, “Government regulation of speech is a frightening thing.”

But the ad fails to note that Schumer signed a letter as far back as 2010 calling on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to give users more control of their personal data. He also has endorsed legislation by Sens. Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar regulating political ads on Facebook, Google and Twitter.

Both Montana senators also have been pretty outspoken about privacy on social media. When Zuckerberg appeared before Congress this month, Tester asked polite but stern questions. Tester disputed Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook users own their own data.

“You’re making about 40 billion bucks a year on the data,” Tester said. “I’m not making any money on it. It feels like you own the data.” He said the license that gives Facebook the right to use data is so thick that few users read it.

Tester also has introduced the Honest Ads Act, which would require online political ads to identify their funding source, similar to the disclosures required on televised political ads.

Daines this month introduced legislation called the Safeguarding American Families from Exposure by Keeping Information and Data Secure (SAFE KIDS) Act. The bill, which he also introduced in 2015, is aimed at prohibiting “operators” from “collecting, using or disclosing” student data for targeted advertising.

Although a news release said the bill was filed on the same day Zuckerberg was to appear before the Senate, it seems to let Facebook off the hook. An operator is defined in the bill as the “operator of a website located on the Internet or online service that is used primarily for preK-12 purposes and was designed and marketed for preK-12 purposes.”

OK, maybe that bill wouldn’t do much. But if the American Future Fund wants to pick on Montana senators, it could attack both Tester and Daines for their silence on last week’s bombing raid on Syria. Back in 2013, both senators said they opposed military action against Syria without congressional approval. When Trump ordered a bombing raid on Syria last year, both senators said the president should get Senate approval before ordering any more raids. Both said that a long-term strategic plan for dealing with Syria was needed before further raids were ordered.

Since last week’s bombing? No news releases, no Facebook entries, no news stories. Neither signed an April 13 letter from 88 members of Congress calling on the president to get congressional authorization before intervening again in Syria.

For years, the constitutional requirement that only Congress can declare wars has been ignored, elided or avoided. Now it is being battered, crushed and stomped on. Even mentioning Congress’ constitutional responsibility sounds quaint and old-fashioned, like calling on Americans to give up their computers and start using quill pens. But it still matters.

“Congress has a vital role to play in the operation of our government, and it’s not playing it,” one constitutional scholar said.

“By anyone’s definition,” said another, “a nation that launches war on the word of one man is not, in any real sense, a republic any more. The Framers knew this; I doubt they were capable of imagining Donald Trump, but they worried about unfit and tyrannical characters in power, and they sought to rein them in.”

If the American Future Fund wants to call out any Montana politicians, it should call them out for abjectly surrendering their most vital power.

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