Oct 17, 2022 - Technology

Silicon Valley's congressman offers a midterm warning

Illustration of Ro Khanna surrounded by ballot elements

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Ro Khanna, the Democrat who represents a big chunk of Silicon Valley in Congress, is still optimistic that his party will hold onto the House and that Congress will pass meaningful regulations of Big Tech . But if Republicans win the House, he warns, they'll devote less time to those issues and more to investigating Hunter Biden.

What they're saying: "These debates are going to be about the Republicans interested in perpetuating a cultural war, where they are going to be targeting the most vulnerable in our societies, people who they think are don't fit the mold of how they define a true American, and it is going to be an ugly, ugly two years," Khanna told Axios' Ina Fried in an interview at last week's Lesbians Who Tech Summit.

Although Khanna's district includes a wide swath of the tech industry's home in towns like Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Santa Clara and Fremont, he is an advocate for laws that would curb Big Tech's power.

  • Among the restrictions Khanna favors are ones that would expand privacy protections beyond California's existing law as well as a change in antitrust law that would shift the burden of proof in large deals, requiring the acquiring company to prove a deal won't hurt competition.
  • "In retrospect, it seems obvious to me that Facebook shouldn't have been able to acquire Instagram, or WhatsApp," he said. "Right now the law is stacked towards the acquirer. If you shifted the presumption, and you say, no, it's actually stacked against the acquisition, you have to show that it's not going to be anti competitive, that I think threads the needle," Khanna said.

Yes, but: Khanna said he wants such restrictions limited to very large deals. Limits on buying smaller companies, he said, would be a step in the wrong direction.

  • "I think when you start doing that, you're actually going to dry up a significant amount of startup innovation (and) venture capital," he said.

The big picture: Members of Congress have proposed new bills around privacy and antitrust and children's online safety , but so far none have passed the full chamber.

  • Khanna isn't sure there are enough votes in the Senate to advance the current antitrust bill.
  • "My guess is they probably don't have the 60 votes yet," Khanna said, referring to the number of Senate votes needed to overcome a filibuster. "And that means it may unfortunately be punted to the next Congress."

On privacy legislation, Khanna said he isn't a big fan of the current bipartisan bill before Congress, which would preempt state laws, including California's.

  • He says he understands companies' desire to have a single federal law rather than a patchwork of state regulation, but argues that any federal legislation should be stronger than state laws.
  • "California should be the floor," he said. "And then the federal legislation should be stronger, stronger, specifically on enforcement, where I think California is weakest."

Between the lines: Some federal legislation on tech issues could yet pass in the post-election lame duck session, but the larger question is which party emerges with control of Congress after the midterms.

  • Khanna said he wouldn't mind a reasonable debate over corporate tax cuts versus investment in education or deregulation versus regulation. But, he said, that's not how a Republican-controlled House would spend its time.

What's next: Khanna also said he would support the creation of a new federal agency to govern tech regulation that could augment the work currently split among the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice.

  • "Absolutely, we need a digital agency," he said. "And we need a much stronger enforcement force. Because any antitrust case, it's very difficult, especially under the current case law."
  • Yes, but: Getting such an agency approved and funded would be an uphill climb given the difficulty Democrats have had passing any new tech legislation — and the funding limits the existing regulatory agencies already face.

Go deeper: How Democrats' big plans for Big Tech shrank to tiny steps

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