Blumenthal's Finsta Debacle: It Remains Unacceptable That Our Politicians Are So Clueless About The Internet
from the this-is-just-embarrassing dept
Fifteen years ago, the best example of how out of touch elected officials were regarding the internet was Senator Ted Stevens’ infamous “it’s a series of tubes” speech (which started out “I just the other day got, an internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday.”) Over the years, this unwillingness of those who put themselves in the position to regulate the internet to actually bother to understand it has become something of an unfortunate running joke. A decade ago, in the midst of the fight over SOPA/PIPA, we pointed out that it’s no longer okay for Congress to not know how the internet works. And yet, a decade has passed and things have not gotten much better. Senator Ron Johnson tried to compare the internet to a bridge into a small creek. Senator Orrin Hatch has no clue how Facebook makes money.
And now there’s a new addition to the list of examples of totally clueless Senators seeking to regulate something they clearly don’t understand. This time it’s Senator Richard Blumenthal, who has been grandstanding about how he wants to take on the internet since long before he was elected to the Senate. He created the most cringe-worthy media clip of a politician in a while while trying to press Facebook’s head of safety Antigone Davis during a Senate hearing on “grandstanding about how we all hate Facebook” (not the actual subject matter, but close enough).
Sen. Blumenthal asks Facebook "Will you commit to ending Finsta?"
Facebook's safety chief has to explain that Finsta is slang for a fake account. pic.twitter.com/jMYy5AIZjY
— Eric Morrow (@morroweric) September 30, 2021
I heard about the exchange before I saw it, but watching the whole thing is even worse than just hearing that Blumenthal seemed to think “finsta” is a Facebook “product or service.” If you’re somehow as ignorant as Blumenthal, “finsta” is just a slang term for a “fake” Instagram account, where someone doesn’t want to be posting under their real name. This can be used to have a more focused conversation, to discuss things you don’t want to discuss under your real name, to hide from some people, or for plenty of other reasons. But Blumenthal seemed to think this “product or service” was bad and Facebook should stop it.
Blumenthal (giving his stern politician face): Will you commit to ending Finsta.
Davis (long pause and a very confused look): Senator, let me again explain… we don’t actually “do” finsta. What “finsta” refers to is young people setting up accounts where they want to have more privacy. You refer to it as having privacy from their parents, but in my interaction with teens, what I found is they sometimes they like to have an account where they can interact just with a smaller group of friends…
This is a nice diplomatic response to a monumentally confused question. Some people might take that answer and realize that maybe they didn’t quite understand what they were asking. But not Senator Blumenthal. Senator Blumenthal doubled down, interrupting Davis:
Blumenthal: Finsta is one of your products or services! [smug face] We’re not talking about Google or Apple. It’s Facebook! Correct?
Davis (another long pause and another very confused look): F-F-Finsta is slang for a type of account. It’s not…
Blumenthal (interrupting again): Okay, will you end that type of account?
I mean, what? How the hell does Blumenthal think that Facebook can magically make people’s alias accounts go away? Hell, earlier in the very same hearing… Blumenthal more or less admitted that he had created a finsta account for himself to examine Instagram’s friend recommendation engine. And, obviously, there are plenty of good questions to be asked about the recommendation engine and how it works and what it promotes. But the “will you end alias accounts” line of questioning is just bizarrely disconnected from reality.
Even if we were to give Blumenthal the benefit of the doubt, and believe he is honestly concerned that people are able to sign up for accounts under non-real names, that also suggests a serious misunderstanding of a bunch of things about the internet. Facebook actually has long had a “real names” policy, and academic research going back a decade has shown just how damaging that is, especially for marginalized groups and those at risk for various reasons. Forcing everyone to use their real names damages privacy, can lead to stalking, can harm those who wish to explore more controversial topics, and a variety of other things. Automatically assuming that forcing everyone to have a profile under their real name is the best solution is its own kind of ignorance regarding the internet and internet culture. EFF’s Jillian York rightly refers to this demand as “the White Man’s Gambit,” in that it is most often suggested as a solution by white men who don’t realize how their privileged position blinds to them to the many, many reasons why people might want to use a “finsta” account for their own privacy and safety.
And this is obviously not the first time Blumenthal has made it clear that he has no interest in understanding the ins-and-outs or details of the internet he so desperately wants to regulate. He was the lead Democratic sponsor of FOSTA and took glee in the idea that the law might cause small internet companies to go out of business. He’s also behind the EARN IT Act, which would be a disaster for the internet and encryption, but has hilariously also gotten mad that Zoom’s encryption wasn’t fully end-to-end even though his own bill would undermine the ability of anyone to offer end-to-end encryption.
So, no, Senator Blumenthal does not get the benefit of the doubt regarding his knowledge of the internet. He has a long history of being confused about how it all works and the impacts of his policy proposals. And maybe, just maybe, before rushing in to sternly judge these internet companies, he could take the time to learn what a “finsta” is.