Finally, we’ve reached bipartisan consensus on Big Tech, yay everyone! At least that’s the line the press is echoing ad nauseum. “Facebook Whistleblower Reignites Bipartisan Support for Curbing Big Tech,” the Financial Times trumpeted last week after Frances Haugen’s Senate testimony on Facebook. “Lawmakers Send Big Tech a Bipartisan Antitrust Message,” Newsweek wrote a day later. For more than a year, but especially after last week’s US Senate hearing, the media has been increasingly suggesting that Democrats and Republicans are setting aside their long-standing disagreements on tech policy.
But beyond their triumphant headlines, many of these articles note (often clumsily) that the “consensus” is merely an opinion that some kind of regulation for Big Tech is needed. This is where the idea of “bipartisan consensus” crumbles, and where the danger in this expression lies.
It’s true that in the past few years American lawmakers have become far more outspoken about Silicon Valley technology giants, their products and services, and their market practices. Yet merely agreeing that something must be done, and on that alone, is about as superficial as bipartisan consensus gets. Elected representatives of both parties still have disagreements about what that something is, why that something should happen, and what the problems are in the first place. All these factors are shaping both the proposed regulations in Congress and the path forward to making them reality.
On top of this, the media separating national politics from the tech legislation process only threatens to repeat the problems of the last several decades, where imagining technology as non-political is conducive to regulators and society ignoring dangers right in front of them. This overblown rhetoric skews analysis of the difficult road ahead to real, substantive regulation—and just how many threats to democracy (and democratic tech legislation) lie from within.
For decades, liberal democracies from the United States to France to Australia consistently touted the internet as a free, secure, and resilient golden child of democracy. US leaders in particular, from Bill Clinton’s Jell-O-to-a-wall speech in 2000 to the State Department’s so-called internet freedom agenda of 2010, hailed the web’s power to topple authoritarianism worldwide. Left alone, this logic went, democratic governments could enable the internet to be as pro-democracy as possible.
The groundswell of calls to regulate Big Tech today is no small change. While it’s tempting to see this shift as unilateral, some parts of the media often forget that tech is not a monolith and that many disparate incidents have led to many disparate calls for regulation: the Equifax data breach, the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, Russian ransomware attacks, Covid misinformation, disinformation campaigns targeting Black voters, uses of racist and sexist algorithms, abusive police uses of surveillance technology, and on and on. Not all lawmakers care equally, or at all, about these issues.
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.
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.”
All this searching (or hoping) for bipartisan agreement on Big Tech perpetuates the techno-centrism of technology discourse—where the primary factor in addressing technology issues is the technology, and technology challenges are treated separately from political challenges. In reality, Big Tech regulation cannot be separated from other Congressional issues of the day. That includes the Republican Party pushing anti-democratic voting laws to rip voting rights away from Black communities; that includes those politicians continuing to spread disinformation about the coronavirus; that includes the policing of women’s bodies through anti-choice laws, backed up with citizen surveillance; that includes top members of the GOP lying about what happened on January 6—including their incitements of violence and backing of authoritarianism. Members of the parties do not care about the same underlying issues, and many elected Republicans’ continued assaults on democracy cannot be ignored when discussing a truly democratic technology future.
Disregarding the political, social, and economic factors inextricable from technology is a huge part of the reason we are where we are today. Perpetuating this problem by pretending to separate out tech regulation from politics—and by continuing to marginalize the voices of those who deal with political and technological harm firsthand—is only going to further sideline the chance at a more democratic technology future.
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