There Is No Bipartisan Consensus on Big Tech

Data breaches and ransomware would seem to be two areas with the greatest potential for consensus legislation; members of Congress hardly stand up to profess their belief in lowering the cybersecurity bar and making their constituents vulnerable to attacks. Earlier this year, after multiple, significantly damaging ransomware attacks launched from within Russia, members of both parties condemned the behavior and highlighted how Congress and the White House could respond by sanctioning Russian actors and investing more in domestic security. The House and Senate held ransomware hearings in July, building on important civil society work to drive bipartisan responses to the threat.

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Recently, another area of apparent bipartisan concern (rightfully so) is social media’s harm to children—as with Facebook burying research on Instagram’s toxicity for teenage girls.

There is no “bipartisan consensus” on misinformation and disinformation in general, even as many in both parties have found a common enemy in Kremlin-funded lies on social media. Many Republicans knowingly continue to push both factually baseless claims of “Big Tech censoring conservative content,” and legislation to overhaul Section 230 under that very guise. The view, as with those who vocally supported Donald Trump’s authoritarian executive order on social media, is that conservative political figures apparently should be exempt from criticism online (in a democracy, wrong)—and that private companies have no right (even though legally, they do) to remove content from or ban users who flagrantly violate their policies, such as by posting racist videos or tweeting Covid-19 disinformation. Republican senator Ron Johnson echoed this in a press release for a July bill, throwing out absurd, baseless, conspiratorial accusations that the Biden administration was “coordinating with Big Tech to infringe on American citizens’ First Amendment freedoms.”

Never mentioned in these discussions is how GOP figures themselves have been leading purveyors of election and Covid-19 disinformation. While this rhetoric has dialed down since Trump left office, some members of the Republican Party still push a conception of “the content moderation problem” based not on fact, but self-serving politics; their position diverges significantly from that of Democrats, who tend to focus content moderation discussions on hate speech and misinformation, even if the proposals would inflict other harms.

Democrats and Republicans also disagree on what, if anything, to do about algorithms. Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation like the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act and a bill to prohibit federal entities’ use of facial recognition tools, and in 2019 a Democratic and a Republican senator cosponsored a bill to restrict business use of facial recognition. Yet looking at broader issues like policing which underlie facial recognition use, Democratic Party members vary in their support for substantial abolition and reform, and that pales in comparison to Republicans who advance racist whataboutism comparing peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators to violent extremists who staged a coup at the US Capitol.

And consensus on antitrust, promising just a year ago, also seems to be crumbling. The House Judiciary Committee’s report on competition in digital markets, released in October 2020, was an ever-rarer example of bipartisan work. Published following a 16-month investigation, it recommended that Congress work to restore competition in the digital economy, strengthen antitrust laws, and revive antitrust enforcement in the Federal Trade Commission. But when the House Judiciary Republicans released their agenda for “taking on Big Tech” this past July, it bluntly claimed that “Big Tech is out to get conservatives,” as the first sentence put it, followed by a recommendation to undermine FTC antitrust work because empowering the FTC would mean empowering “radical Biden bureaucrats.”

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