Washington's fall agenda: GOP, tech industry clash over bias claims

Washington's fall agenda: GOP, tech industry clash over bias claims
© Photo illustration/Nicole Vas

Congress and the White House are facing a number of important issues this fall. But the clock is ticking with the November midterms looming and the end of the year fast approaching. Here's a look at Washington's agenda and the key stories The Hill will be watching in the months ahead.

It’s been a rough year for Silicon Valley and the industry can expect more scrutiny and controversy this fall from Washington.

Tech companies have been under pressure from lawmakers who want answers on data privacy and efforts to prevent foreign influence and election interference. Social media has found itself under fire from both sides of the political divide. Those on the left say it needs to do more to crack down on abusive behavior online, while Republicans, including President TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE, are raising concerns that conservative voices could be censored.

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Here are the key issues on tech and telecommunications we’ll be keeping an eye on as 2018 draws to a close. 

Allegations of anti-conservative bias

Republicans are banging the drum on what they see as a bias against conservatives on tech and social media platforms.

On Tuesday, Trump hammered Google, Twitter and Facebook, warning that they were “treading on very, very troubled territory,” raising allegations of political bias. The comments followed tweets earlier in the day where he accused Google of skewing its search results to favor results biased against him and conservatives.

Google and other companies have strongly denied that their algorithms and practices discriminate against conservative speech, but that response has done little to assuage Republicans.

Democrats have dismissed claims of conservative bias, but the issue is a potent one for Republican leaders with their base.

The issue will be in the spotlight on Sept. 5 when the House Energy and Commerce Committee hears from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on the matter.

Committee Chairman Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenHouse GOP blocks Trump-supported drug pricing provision from spending bill GOP turns its fire on Google Hillicon Valley: Twitter chief faces GOP anger over bias | DOJ convenes meeting on bias claims | Rubio clashes with Alex Jones | DHS chief urges lawmakers to pass cyber bill | Sanders bill takes aim at Amazon MORE (R-Ore.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyOn The Money: Midterms to shake up House finance panel | Chamber chief says US not in trade war | Mulvaney moving CFPB unit out of DC | Conservatives frustrated over big spending bills Midterms to shake up top posts on House finance panel The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh confirmation in sudden turmoil MORE (R-Calif.) had pressed Dorsey to testify on whether Twitter was “shadow banning” conservatives, a practice the company denies.

More ominously, the administration may also take action. Asked if Trump’s tweets about Google could lead to regulation, top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the administration is looking into it. Trump said he wants “fairness” and will act on companies that are, in his view, displaying bias. 

Fight against misinformation 

Silicon Valley’s toughest test could come in the November midterm elections with the industry being closely watched to see how it prevents efforts by Russia and potentially other countries to influence voters and spread misinformation.

Lawmakers held a hearing on the matter in November of 2017 and they will get an update from tech on its efforts on Sept. 5, when executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google will testify.

Many in Congress have already voiced their concern about foreign influence being a threat toward the 2018 midterm elections and there have already been reports of foreign groups targeting candidates. Some companies, including Facebook and Google, have taken action against foreign influence operations and disclosed those to the public.

November will be an important test for the industry to reassure lawmakers it is taking the steps needed before the 2020 presidential vote.

Tech leaders, including Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergFight looms over national privacy law Facebook teaming with nonprofits to fight fake election news China may be copying Facebook to build an intelligence weapon MORE, have acknowledged that the issue isn’t going anywhere, and that tech, cybersecurity companies and the government will have to keep stepping up their defense to counter a constantly shifting threat.

There’s also legislation on the table. The Honest Ads Act from Sens. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerRussia docs order sets Trump on collision with intel community Hillicon Valley: North Korean IT firm hit with sanctions | Zuckerberg says Facebook better prepared for midterms | Big win for privacy advocates in Europe | Bezos launches B fund to help children, homeless Bipartisan trio asks US intelligence to investigate ‘deepfakes’ MORE (D-Va.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSenate Democrats increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls GOP in striking distance to retake Franken seat MORE (D-Minn.) would place digital political ads under similar transparency rules as newspaper, print and radio ads. But the bill has little momentum in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Tech companies have been wary of a legislative solution, though, vowing that they can better self-regulate.

Net neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has rolled back the popular Obama-era net neutrality internet rules, but the fight is far from over.

Democratic state attorneys general and consumer advocates have filed lawsuits in federal court to force the FCC to reinstate the rules. The FCC will have a chance to respond to the complaints in October.

The fight is also playing out on a number of other fronts. California is on the brink of passing some of the toughest net neutrality regulations in the country, following a handful of other states that have defied the FCC’s order. In their lawsuit, the Democratic attorneys general have also asked the court to overturn the commission’s preemption of states implementing their own rules.

Democrats in Congress have mounted their own effort to reinstate the rules. Earlier this year, a bill that would overturn the FCC’s repeal passed the Senate in bipartisan fashion only to stall in the House. 

For their part, Republicans want to pass a compromise net neutrality bill to avoid a patchwork of state rules and regulatory uncertainty at the federal level. But Democrats so far have been unwilling to come to the table, believing any GOP bill would be too weak.

Mergers

The fight over the AT&T and Time Warner merger is also entering a new stage. A judge approved the $85 billion deal and the companies officially closed the merger in June. But the Justice Department is appealing the decision, and the fight will drag on before a federal appeals court.

One pending deal that has also drawn critics from the left and the public interest world is the marriage of T-Mobile and Sprint. That merger is expected to face more of an uphill battle since it’s combining two direct competitors in an industry that only had four national players. The two companies are pushing back against concerns that the tie-up will raise prices, arguing that it will allow them to build a 5G network superior to those of Verizon and AT&T that will deliver benefits to consumers. Both the FCC and the Justice Department will have to sign off on the deal, which is likely to undergo tough scrutiny.

Despite the surprise unraveling of Sinclair Broadcast Group’s merger with Tribune Media, the broadcast industry is ripe for further consolidation. Observers will be watching closely to see if other major companies make a move for Tribune’s valuable local television stations. Among the most likely candidates are Nexstar Media Group and the Twenty-First Century Fox.