Jun 5, 2020 - Technology

As techlash heats up again, here's who's stoking the fire

Illustration of a computer on a roasting spit.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As controversies around online speech rage against a backdrop of racial tension, presidential provocation and a pandemic, a handful of companies, lawmakers and advocacy groups have continued to promote a backlash against Big Tech.

The big picture: Companies like Facebook and Google got a reputational boost at the start of the coronavirus lockdown, but that respite from criticism proved brief. They're now once again walking a minefield of regulatory investigations, public criticism and legislative threats over antitrust concerns, content moderation and privacy concerns.

Be smart: Decrying tech giants' power is an increasingly winning message among Americans on both the populist right and progressive left. It can also present competitive and political benefits for those voicing it.

  • The biggest power player is President Donald Trump himself, who recently escalated his feud with social media companies with an executive order taking aim at their liability protections after Twitter took action against his incendiary messages.

Here are the firms, faces and groups to watch as the techlash heats back up.

Industry: Companies that compete with or rely on major tech companies are increasingly outspoken in their criticisms — and in some cases, have taken those concerns to lawmakers and antitrust enforcers.

  • Oracle, locked in a long-running copyright battle with Google, has lobbied against the company on privacy issues and supported changes to online platforms' legal immunity for user-posted content. Oracle executive vice president Ken Glueck has argued there isn't a broad techlash, but a narrower bristling against companies whose business model relies on consumer data collection.
  • Yelp has been outspoken in its calls for antitrust action against Google, accusing the company of unfairly favoring its own products in search results. It hosted an event last year entitled the "Vanguard of the Techlash."
  • News Corp is at the forefront of criticism from the news industry that tech giants unfairly scoop up ad revenue from publishers.

Republican lawmakers: Much of the tech criticism on the right centers on claims of anti-conservative bias and Silicon Valley firms' dealings in China.

  • Freshman Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) quickly made a name for himself as one of tech's biggest foils on the right. He has called for antitrust investigations, reforms to children's online privacy law, and introduced a bill that would create a government audit process to ensure platforms moderate content in a politically neutral manner.
  • Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) has been outspoken against tech on privacy issues — suggesting there should be uniform federal policy that holds tech and telecom firms to the same privacy standards — and urged the FTC to take action against Facebook and Google last year over potential privacy, data security, and antitrust violations.
  • Sen. Lindsay Graham (R- S.C.), as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, introduced bipartisan legislation that would require online platforms to "earn" the legal immunity they currently have for user-posted content under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Democratic lawmakers: The techlash discourse on the left has touched on privacy, misinformation and ways tech companies may exacerbate social inequities. But antitrust enforcement has been perhaps the most key theme.

  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a former state attorney general who was involved in the Microsoft antitrust case, supported a change in the Section 230 law related to sex trafficking, co-sponsored Graham's bill and joined Hawley on a letter to the Justice Department urging a broad review of Google's practices in its antitrust investigation.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made breaking up Amazon, Facebook, and Google a major part of her campaign for president, and has called Facebook a "disinformation-for-profit machine" in criticizing its political ads policy.
  • Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, is leading a bipartisan probe into the market power of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

Advocacy groups: Organizations pushing for antitrust action or legislative changes have stayed on message during the pandemic. Two newer groups have quickly developed profiles as techlash agitators.

  • The American Economic Liberties Project launched this year with funding from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's the Omidyar Network, and is led by Sarah Miller, who also co-chairs the Freedom From Facebook and Google coalition. The project published a paper outlining antitrust and regulatory remedies for curbing the power of Facebook and Google.
  • The Internet Accountability Project, a conservative advocacy group that has received funding from Oracle, has focused its efforts on anti-conservative bias, privacy violations, anticompetitive practices and other issues.

Our thought bubble: As the criticism ramps up again, tech leaders are already getting nostalgic for the good old days of the fight to limit coronavirus infections.

  • "It felt to me that over the last couple of months there was this brief moment of unity with our response on COVID, where it felt like we were all in this together,” Zuckerberg said on a call with employees Tuesday.
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