Nov 8, 2018 - Politics & Policy

What the new Congress means for Silicon Valley

The exterior of the Capitol dome pictured through an archway

Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Tuesday’s midterms will shake up the congressional committees responsible for keeping tabs on the tech industry and set the stage for new legislation taking direct aim at companies like Google and Facebook.

The bottom line: Democrats focused on privacy and conservatives who are suspicious of the platform companies are moving into more prominent positions at a time when Big Tech is a bigger target for concrete regulation than ever before.

In the House, a new era of Democratic leadership has major implications for Silicon Valley and Washington.

  • Likely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has mentioned a desire to produce an infrastructure package that would include broadband.
  • Rep. Frank Pallone, the Energy and Commerce Committee’s top Democrat, said Wednesday he would seek to lead the panel. Among his priorities are developing “meaningful privacy and data security protections."
  • He also said the committee under his leadership would “conduct rigorous oversight of the Trump Administration.” That would likely include the Federal Communications Commission and its Trump-appointed chairman, Ajit Pai, who has run a de-regulatory agenda with little oversight from congressional Republicans.
  • The big tech companies may also face tough scrutiny from a Democratic House, including Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), the current top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel who could become its chair.
  • “He's had concerns with Amazon and Google and almost certainly would hold antitrust hearings on those companies — the first since Google's hearing in 2011,” said Cowen Washington Research Group's Paul Gallant in an analyst note. “House antitrust hearings could influence how aggressively the FTC and DOJ investigate the Internet companies.”

In the Senate, a key committee’s leadership is in play and several tech skeptics won seats for the first time.

  • The Senate Commerce Committee, which will take a key role in crafting privacy legislation, is likely losing its Chairman, Sen. John Thune (SD), to a higher position in GOP leadership. The top Democrat on the panel — Sen. Bill Nelson (Fl.) — lost his bid for reelection this week but may be waiting out a recount. It's possible a lawmaker more critical of tech’s data collection practices could take his job.
  • Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who has accused web platforms of conservative bias and previously introduced internet privacy legislation, won a Senate seat. So did Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley (R), who has been investigating major tech firms.

Yes, but: Congressional committee assignments haven’t been decided yet, so the full picture of who tech will tangle with for the next two years hasn’t yet come into view.

What to watch: Expect more frequent hearings, especially on issues such as consumer data practices and market competition issues. While sweeping legislation won't materialize anytime soon, narrow measures uniting concerns from both sides of the aisle could be more feasible.

Go deeper: Midterms will shape the internet's new privacy rules

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