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As tech founders resign, Congress loses its favorite targets

But they stand to gain a real chance at change

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

On Monday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that he would be stepping down from the company he co-founded over 15 years ago. 

The news came as a shock to both Twitter’s own users and its investors on Wall Street. But in Dorsey’s resignation letter to staff, he showed no surprise, writing that it was “finally time” for him to leave and that he made his decision to step aside solely on his own.

His resignation follows years of mounting pressure from Congress against social media platforms like Twitter over concerns ranging from content moderation to monopoly power. Lawmakers have authored bills and held hearings — some in good faith, but perhaps more often in bad — aimed at reining in their power. And like every other major tech CEO, Dorsey has dutifully testified, even if just as an excuse for lawmakers to yell at him for “censoring” them without achieving tangible results.

But this dynamic may finally change under the leadership of Twitter’s new CEO, Parag Agrawal, its former chief technology officer, as legislators lose a widely recognized figure at whom to aim their frustrations. “Hopefully, we can move past this moment of sort of headlines and CEOs and move into a place of Congress buckling down and meaningfully putting in place some regulations that will rein in control of the industry,” Johnny Mathias, deputy senior campaign director at Color Of Change, said in an interview.

Senators like Ted Cruz (R-TX) have scored viral Twitter clips owning Silicon Valley liberals with hearings on Big Tech, and tech hawks like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) have won headlines lauding them for “grilling” execs like Zuckerberg. But meaningful legislation hasn’t gained much momentum. Still, this relationship has worked for a Congress focused on fundraising or appearing as tough culture warriors in the fight against censorship. 

Dorsey, as a founder and Silicon Valley figurehead, became not only the face of his company, but a stand-in for social media’s ills as a whole

Dorsey, as a founder and Silicon Valley figurehead, became not only the face of his company, but a stand-in for social media’s ills as a whole. Like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, he was a target to complain about his company’s problems, rather than a conduit for useful negotiations.

Dorsey’s departure from Twitter, coming shortly after Bezos left Amazon, seemingly marks a new phase of tech skepticism in Washington, a shift away from the “brilliant founder” narrative and into a more mature critique of these companies as powerful institutions. Without memeable leaders like Dorsey or Bezos to haul in for splashy, dunk-filled hearings, lawmakers will have more incentive to work on the boring stuff: actually writing policy to change these companies’ behaviors.

Some lawmakers are optimistic that changes in leadership could lead to more fruitful discussions on how to shape the future of the tech industry. “Of course, we haven’t seen tech CEOs step down at Facebook,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) told me on Wednesday. “But perhaps if that were to happen, there may be more open-mindedness” to regulation.

This wave has already caught up with older tech companies. Apple CEO Tim Cook famously courted support from President Trump, giving him a tour of the company’s Austin, Texas facilities. Under Satya Nadella, Microsoft has built strong relationships with lawmakers, offering expertise on important legislative issues like broadband expansion. These have not always been popular moves with the employees of these companies, but having an executive who’s more willing to work with political leaders clearly changes the tenor of a company’s relationship with Washington.

Google, meanwhile, has been reckoning with political outrage, primarily in the form of potential antitrust violations, for over a decade. In 2012, the European Union — which has generally been way ahead of the US in tech regulation — first demanded that Google change how it promotes its own products over those of its rivals in search results. Being forced into politicking early on likely influenced Google’s decisions to grow past its founders and put in place a CEO like Sundar Pichai, who has largely avoided turning the company into a flashpoint for political controversies.

“Google hasn’t created the same sort of headlines for statements of their founders because Pichai is just the CEO,” Johnny Mathias, deputy senior campaign director at Color Of Change, said in a Monday interview. “Facebook has chosen to have a much more public strategy about their decision making. And Google has chosen to be far more withdrawn from your day-to-day politics. For that, they haven’t faced the same sort of scrutiny or pressure.”

Part of the shift away from founders may be an acknowledgment that times have changed. Twitter was in a much different spot both culturally and politically when Dorsey returned to the company in 2011. At that point in time, “Democrats viewed tech as their industry,” said Adam Kovacevich, founder and CEO of Chamber of Progress, a tech industry group. Social media was gaining more mainstream popularity and becoming more widely adopted by users. There was an excitement about tech, not just in the Valley, but in Washington, that likely shaped these companies’ lucrative relationships with government.

But after election night 2016, Facebook and Twitter — once the shining stars of American innovation and global economic leadership — were revealed as a threat to Democrats and their power. Then, the companies pivoted away from a mostly hands-off approach to political speech to a more aggressive one, most notably when Twitter banned Trump from the platform following the January 6th Capitol riot. In doing so, social media created enemies on both sides of the aisle.

In his resignation letter, Dorsey acknowledged that his company had outgrown him as a leader. “There’s a lot of talk about the importance of a company being ‘founder-led.’ Ultimately, I believe that’s severely limiting and a single point of failure,” Dorsey wrote. “There aren’t many founders that choose their company over their own ego. I know we’ll prove this was the right move.”

In recent months, lawmakers have proven that they’ve done their homework, authoring legislation that could dramatically alter the tech industry as it operates today. They’ve cobbled together thousands of documents in a sweeping yearslong investigation into anticompetitive conduct. Instead of asking questions about how Facebook makes money off of ads, they’re asking pointed questions about how these ad-driven business models can inflict harm. But most importantly, this outrage is bipartisan, even if Republicans and Democrats disagree on the specifics.

With celebrity founders out of the picture, regulation talks could move in a different direction, favoring expert and activist voices now that powerhouse CEO megaphones are getting unplugged.

“It feels like things have hit a boiling point around these companies”

“I would be hopeful this would grow out of the dynamic of politicians and CEOs and bring it into the space of grassroots activism, researchers, and human rights experts who have been raising these issues for years,” Evan Greer, Fight for the Future director, said on Tuesday. “Lawmakers would do very well to spend more time listening to folks like us than arguing with CEOs for television.”

Others, like Matt Wood, Free Press vice president and general counsel, are more skeptical of founders leaving their companies. “They probably see it as a value as well to turn down the scrutiny to the extent they’ve been kind of human lightning rods for it,” Wood told me. “I think that it’ll actually deprive the entire conversation without the political theater of these hearings.”

For now, the pressure on tech companies continues. On Wednesday, a House committee launched its latest series of hearings aimed at reforming tech’s liability shield with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testifying for a second time on the platform’s potential harms.

“It feels like things have hit a boiling point around these companies,” Greer said.