A split government set to take hold in January 2023 is likely to bring gridlock in a bunch of policy areas, and confronting Big Tech is no exception. But the close margins in the House and Senate could, under the right circumstances and with a new issue set, mean bipartisan cooperation in less contentious tech policy realms.
Democrats in the Senate will have a majority of at most 51-49 over the Republicans, if Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia wins reelection in a Dec. 6 runoff. Meanwhile, the House Republican majority seems likely to end up in the low single-digits, a far cry from what GOP leaders had expected and boasted about before Election Day.
The narrow margins do nothing to change the fact that while Democrats and Republicans each harbor deep suspicions about Big Tech, it’s for starkly different reasons. Democrats are concerned about the size, scope, and influence of tech’s biggest players, such as Alphabet, Amazon, Meta, Twitter, and others. Republicans, meanwhile, have blasted what they call a liberal bias that infuses the workforce of these West Coast companies, intentionally limiting the reach of conservative voices.
This tech policy stalemate of sorts is likely to continue through Jan. 3, when the 118th Congress convenes, Adam Kovacevich, the CEO of Chamber of Progress, a left-leaning tech industry trade group, told the Washington Examiner. But in the next Congress, “areas like cryptocurrency, consumer privacy, and autonomous vehicles may be less headline-driven opportunities for bipartisan consensus,” Kovacevic said.
Each of those issues has at least a modicum of support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The consumer privacy issue is of particular concern because a handful of states have passed their own regulations on how digital information must be gathered, stored, and handled. If more states follow suit, it could mean a costly and complex patchwork of different and potentially conflicting rules across the country. That means many tech companies are asking for Congress to pass a federal privacy law that would preempt the state rules.
“A recalibration to concerns about government coercion of social media platforms,” could attract bipartisan support in the House, said Carl Szabo of the right-leaning tech industry group NetChoice.
Republicans have seized on concerns over “jawboning” by members of President Joe Biden’s administration, which means implicitly threatening tech companies to remove or not remove third-party content lest they face increased or altered regulations. The Intercept recently published a related report documenting communications between the Department of Homeland Security and social media companies.
Then there was the 2021 admission by Jen Psaki, Biden’s White House spokesman at the time, that the administration was flagging “problematic” posts with “misinformation” about COVID-19. Since then, much of the conventional wisdom around the pandemic has drawn scrutiny, including the virus’s origins and how it spreads.
Szabo told the Washington Examiner that these instances hopefully trigger “necessary congressional oversight and investigations,” which may spur the interest of some Democratic lawmakers. “Americans need to know what the Biden administration has been up to if there’s going to be any public trust.”
Szabo also sees a Republican House turning its attention to oversight of the Federal Trade Commission.
“Online fraud and theft are skyrocketing — what’s the FTC doing about it?” Szabo asked, pointing to issues that are traditionally bipartisan.
Additionally, the worsening of macroeconomic conditions and deep job cuts by top tech companies, including Meta, may also influence what Washington focuses on legislatively. As currently written, the leading antitrust bill aimed at curbing the power of Big Tech has a minimum market cap of $550 billion for platforms to be subjected to the regulations. Meta’s value sits at nearly half that after having lost billions and becoming the worst-performing stock on the S&P 500 this year.
As market conditions change and regulation stalls in both chambers as the 117th Congress winds down, it’s likely that both Republicans and Democrats will have to change their criteria and their targets if they want to find common ground in regulating Big Tech. And that could spur legislative action in a future session of Congress likely to be defined more by gridlock.