Congress looks to squeeze Big Tech ahead of election

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tech companies are bracing for a tough day in three separate Capitol Hill committees Thursday, as lawmakers move to show they're tough on social media platforms in the days leading up to the election.

Why it matters: Big Tech has become a go-to punching bag for both the right and left, and tech policy has become increasingly fertile ground for grievance politics.

What's happening: First, the Senate Commerce Committee is voting to authorize subpoenas of three CEOs — Twitter's Jack Dorsey, Google's Sundar Pichai and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg — to testify at a hearing to discuss Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the tech industry's prized and highly contentious third-party content liability shield.

  • The Trump administration, which has been attacking Section 230 as part of its allegations of bias against conservatives by social media platforms, supports the subpoena move, a White House spokesperson said. Senate Commerce Republicans expect Democrats to boycott the vote, said a Senate staffer.
  • Twitter, Google and Facebook declined to comment on the vote.

Over in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham will push forward a bill that combines changes to copyright with amending Section 230 to limit the law's civil liability protections.

The House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee will have its first follow-up hearing on the state of competition in digital markets since it heard testimony from Zuckerberg, Pichai, Apple's Tim Cook and Amazon's Jeff Bezos on antitrust and competition in July.

Reality check: It's nearly certain a Section 230 reform bill and antitrust legislation will not pass before the end of the year. But lawmakers are determined to show they are working on reining in big tech on everything from antitrust to misinformation to bias as the election and a new Congress near.

What they're saying: During the House Judiciary hearing, lawmakers will hear from academics and former government antitrust regulators, Axios scooped Tuesday. Committee chairman David Cicilline said the hearing is meant to explore possible remedies to competition problems in the digital market.

  • Proposed legislation isn't likely until after the report has been issued, Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican on the committee, told Axios ahead of the hearing. That report is expected as early as Monday.
  • But expectations of passing new bills this Congress are low, he said: "It's futile to run a long-distance race when there is no air left in the room," Buck said.
  • He said that though Republicans and Democrats disagree on many competition and content moderation issues, he believes there's a "sweet spot" in the middle where the two sides can agree. Still, he suggests using a "scalpel and not a chainsaw" for any changes to antitrust law.
  • That's far less aggressive than some ideas from Cicilline, who has floated a "Glass-Steagall" act for the internet.

The Section 230-related moves "look a lot like pre-election base energizing," one tech industry insider told Axios. Just this week, two new Section 230 bills dropped — one from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) and another from Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).

  • Last week, the White House applauded the Justice Department proposing amendments to Section 230 in a meeting with Republican state attorneys general as an antitrust suit against Google looms.

Our thought bubble: Time is on tech's side to endure these particular regulatory headwinds without much damage, but a fuller reckoning may come next year.

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