Last spring, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sat before Congress to atone for the company’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, and in the following months, momentum has built in the halls of the Capitol to regulate these giant tech companies, or even break them up.
“These days are over with,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) said at a House Oversight hearing yesterday where representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified on social media and election security. “You better come up with a plan for this chairman on how you’re going to fix it, how you’re going to stop Russians, how you’re going to make sure that we’re fair with all of this because I can tell you, it’s a real problem.”
“These days are over with”
Republicans and Democrats have both been talking a tough game against tech companies for months, but in the past few weeks, a new group of lawmakers has shown willingness to work across party lines to push forward actual legislation, suggesting there may be a new consensus forming on how to push back against the power of the major tech platforms.
This bipartisanship has been on display in a number of recent bills. The Do Not Track Act was first crafted by executives at the alternative search engine DuckDuckGo as a way to let Americans opt out of online ad-tracking, building off earlier efforts backed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union. It might seem like a left-wing proposal, but it was introduced into Congress this week by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), a rising conservative tech critic who has been at the center of many of these efforts. The bill only found Democratic co-sponsors today, only after Hawley had publicly come out in support of the proposal.
The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act followed a similar path, taking on the growing issue of randomized in-game purchases that many have compared to a kind of gambling. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) first raised issue with loot boxes last year, and now Hawley has made them a pet issue, bringing in two other colleagues from across the aisle to support it. Hawley’s effort to provide greater data privacy protections to children also attracted Democratic support, and he’s working alongside the lawmaker who penned the original law he’s trying to expand on.
The looming data privacy bill will be the biggest test of this growing skepticism. A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers from the Senate Commerce Committee have been meeting to craft a data privacy bill with a chance to pass in both the House and the Senate. It’s unclear when this bill will come out, but lawmakers have been keen on coming up with some kind of compromise before the end of the year, when California’s own law officially goes into effect.
Other compromises are still in the discussion phase. Just yesterday, members on both sides of the aisle agreed that it was time for them to sit down and sketch out an approach to regulate facial recognition technology, although there haven’t been any firm proposals yet.
That bipartisanship has been hard to come by in the past, even on relatively straightforward measures to regulate Facebook election ads. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Mark Warner (D-VA) first introduced the Honest Ads Act last year, which would require tech companies like Facebook and Google to abide by the same election rules as TV and radio. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) signed onto that bill, true to his maverick reputation, but after he passed away late last year, it was difficult for Democrats to find another Republican sponsor.
For most of the last Congress, Honest Ads Act was frozen in place — but it has started to thaw more recently. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, came out backing the Honest Ads Act earlier this month.
Outside of Congress, Democratic 2020 primary contenders have also made proposals to set clear rules and standards for these companies when it comes to data privacy, election security, and discrimination in tech like algorithms and ad-targeting. Some, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) have said publicly that companies like Facebook and Amazon should just be broken up. There’s still a significant split in how the parties approach the issues, with Democrats favoring antitrust law as a solution to market power, while conservatives like Cruz see the issue as free speech in the face of platform bias. But with the recent bipartisan bills, there seem to be a growing number of proposals that both sides can agree on.
It’s still unclear when these bills will make their way through the committee process, or if they’ll be taken up for a vote on the Senate and House floors. There’s no predicting whether these bipartisan pieces of legislation will become law at all. But as Facebook and Google gauge Congress’ ability to pass real restrictions on their business, these latest moves should make them nervous.