Jan 11, 2021 - Technology

Democrats' menu for striking back at Big Tech

Illustration of the shadow of a donkey hovering over a laptop
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Many Democratic legislators say Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other online services stood by while the president used them to discredit a lawful election and his supporters used them to organize a violent assault on the Capitol.

Why it matters: Right at the moment that Democrats are about to take over the White House and both houses of Congress, the Capitol riot poured gas on the fire of the party’s anger at Big Tech platforms.

If you were a Democratic leader, here are the avenues you’d be exploring to come down on those companies:

Clip tech's liability shield. Democrats have already floated amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to stem the spread of hate speech, misinformation and incendiary rhetoric. The riot may boost the odds that they'll see that through.

  • Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said she intends to update and reintroduce a bill with Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) early this Congress that would keep Section 230 protections from applying to content that foments civil rights abuses or terrorism. "These companies have shown they won’t do the right thing on their own," Eshoo said.
  • The leader of the House Energy & Commerce consumer protection subcommittee, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), also plans to move forward quickly with legislation that would limit Section 230 protections for companies that fail to enforce their terms of service.

Shrink Big Tech with new antitrust laws and enforcement: Watch for antitrust leaders on Capitol Hill, such as Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), to cite the riot as a prime example of the real-world damage resulting from tech giants' unchecked scale and reach.

  • That may propel sweeping new antitrust legislation that could follow a roadmap House Democrats laid out last summer.
  • “As we continue to learn about the January 6 insurrection, including the role social media platforms played, I will work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to help ensure online platforms are not a breeding ground for hate and violence,” Klobuchar, likely to be the Judiciary committee’s new antitrust chair, told Axios.
  • Even absent new laws, the Biden administration can aggressively litigate and possibly expand antitrust lawsuits against Google (from the Justice Department) and Facebook (from the Federal Trade Commission). It can also launch fresh suits against the likes of Amazon and Apple.

Flex their oversight muscle: Online platforms' role in the planning of the siege will take center stage as lawmakers press federal law enforcement for answers on why they weren't better prepared.

  • Virginia Democrats Jennifer Wexton and Don Byer led 35 representatives in a Friday letter to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security asking about their digital threat monitoring practices. They highlighted how the insurrectionists openly plotted on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.
  • Lawmakers can also haul in tech executives directly for hearings. Expect tech leaders, particularly Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter's Jack Dorsey, to continue being familiar faces on Capitol Hill in the new Congress.

Stand up a new agency: The idea of a new federal agency that exists solely to regulate tech practices has been tossed around by a number of Democrats on the party's left flank. It's very much a long shot, but the notion could get fresh life as lawmakers grasp for tools to prevent a repeat of last week's events.

  • Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told Axios he plans to advocate for just such an agency.

What they're saying: "The siege of the Capitol was a stark reminder that reckless amplification of baseless conspiracy theories can have deadly consequences," Welch said.

Go deeper