Social media summit highlights partisan approaches on tech


Washington’s escalating scrutiny of Silicon Valley is putting into stark contrast the different approaches Democrats and Republicans are taking toward reigning in the massive tech giants.

The consensus that large tech companies have become too powerful and know too much about their users is one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill, but the two parties disagree over what to do about it.

President Trump’s social media summit on Thursday highlighted the GOP’s conviction that social media companies are out to silence conservatives.

{mosads}Trump told the gathering of right-wing social media personalities and conservative lawmakers that he will be summoning tech companies to the White House to address the accusations of anti-conservative bias.

“We have terrible bias. We have censorship like nobody has any understanding or nobody can believe,” he said.

Democrats see little evidence to back up the GOP’s fears and are instead focused on an antitrust investigation into the market power of Silicon Valley’s giants.

They are also pushing for tougher privacy regulations to reign in unfettered data collection.

The different approaches will be on display next week when four of the largest tech companies appear before the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee to defend their market power.

At the same time, on the other side of the Capitol, Google’s vice president of public policy will testify about accusations that the company is censoring conservatives before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

The House subcommittee led by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) will hear from Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon executives as part of Cicilline’s antitrust investigation.

The probe was announced last month with the goal of examining the impact that the industry’s rise has had on the economy and consumers and whether the nation’s antitrust enforcers should have done something to stop it.

Cicilline, who is collaborating with Republicans on the investigation, says Republicans’ claims of anti-conservative bias are questionable and threaten to overshadow the issues in Silicon Valley that he believes deserve the most scrutiny.  

“I don’t think there is evidence to support them,” Cicilline told The Hill. “And they do, I think, interfere with a really important investigation that relates to the dominance of these technology platforms, the anticompetitive behavior, the impact on competition. I think those are the serious issues that are present in the digital marketplace that we ought to be focusing on, not some made-up notion about conservative bias, which they have no evidence to support.”

Some conservatives are using their bias accusations to push for significant changes to tech’s legal shield, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a provision that shields online companies from liability for content posted by their users. Republicans have derided Section 230 as a “sweetheart deal” for tech companies that allows them to shirk responsibility for their content moderation decisions. 

Freshman Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has quickly become one of the Republican party’s most vocal tech critics, set off a wave of controversy last month when he introduced a bill that would require the top tech companies to submit to audits proving they are politically “neutral” in order to receive Section 230 protections. 

Traditional free market and tech groups immediately derided the bill as government overreach and an intrusion on free speech rights, pointing out that Hawley’s proposal would require the Federal Trade Commission — led by five political appointees — to audit the private companies. 

But Trump offered an endorsement of Hawley’s approach during the social media summit, where Hawley offered opening remarks touting his legislation. 

“You know what Josh is doing right now?” Trump said during the event. “He’s doing some very important legislation because we have to do something about what’s happening.” 

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), another social media summit guest, told The Hill on Thursday that he has been “working with the White House” on his proposed changes to Section 230 over political bias concerns.

Democrats have also raised the spectre of amending Section 230 over separate issues regarding big tech’s struggles to stave off the spread of misinformation and hate speech. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said earlier this year that tech companies are abusing their privilege under Section 230 and warned the law could be in jeopardy.

But Democrats are more than skeptical of Republicans’ claims of censorship and have not fully embraced their push to gut tech companies’ liability protections.

Still, top Democratic tech critics do see some room to work with Republicans, many of whom also have concerns about antitrust and data privacy.

“My Republican colleagues on the committee have engaged in this investigation in a very productive way,” Cicilline said, adding that their claims of social media bias haven’t disrupted the “bipartisan nature” of the probe.

Some Republicans have used the bias concerns as a springboard into other tech criticisms. 

“Bias censors speech. Bias curves innovation. Congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration have worked to bring accountability to Big Tech and will continue to do so. But it isn’t just bias that should concern the American people,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a statement.

“The collection and use of our data by technology companies must be met with a new privacy framework that allows each American to see our data, control our data, and delete our data. As the digital age continues to grow, we will be relentless in our pursuit of accountability, innovation, and privacy,” he added.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who is not a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told The Hill that he briefly stepped into a closed-door meeting the panel held on Wednesday featuring Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who recently made waves by calling to break up Facebook. 

“They got their idea,” Jordan said. “I’m just trying to figure out what’s the best approach to deal with this.” 

And Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who regularly accuses social media companies of censoring conservative speech, this week met privately with Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman. Blackburn tweeted that she wanted to discuss “concerns that Google prioritizes its own content over Yelp’s.”

Stoppelman also stopped in to brief Cicilline on his company’s antitrust complaints against Google.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who has pushed federal regulators to take up antitrust and privacy issues posed by Facebook and Google, told reporters on Thursday that he doesn’t think Republicans have proved their assertions about anti-conservative bias, but he sees anything that brings attention to social media companies “in a serious way” as a positive.

“I welcome scrutiny surrounding social media and about Big Tech, concerning the need for stronger accountability,” Blumenthal said. “I have a number of very specific proposals related to privacy and legal immunity and so forth that I hope we’ll be given more traction by this increased attention.”

Tags Amazon David Cicilline Donald Trump Facebook Google Jim Jordan Josh Hawley Kevin McCarthy Marsha Blackburn Matt Gaetz Nancy Pelosi Silicon Valley Ted Cruz Twitter
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