Nov 7, 2022 - Technology

Tech outlook for a GOP Congress: More noise, even less action

Illustration of a digital hour glass surrounded by ballot imagery

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Republican control of the House, Senate or both would trigger a big shift for Big Tech on the Hill away from Democrats' privacy and antitrust crusades and towards the GOP's chief tech complaint — perceived platform bias against conservative-leaning content.

Why it matters: The outcome of Tuesday's elections will shape the next two years of tech legislation and hearings in D.C. But prospects for enacting new laws are likely even dimmer if Republicans control Congress' agenda while a Democrat remains in the White House.

What they're saying: "Content will far and away be the biggest issue" in a Republican-run Congress, one tech policy executive told Axios. "It's unlikely something gets done, but it will be a serious and big issue."

  • House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's Republican agenda outline names Republican tech priorities: "Greater privacy and data security protections, equip parents with more tools to keep their kids safe online, and stop companies from putting politics ahead of people."

Details: Conservatives in the House have long said they want to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which largely shields tech platforms from liability for what users post.

  • House and Senate Republicans also want strengthened antitrust enforcement and loosened rules for app stores as Democrats do. But conservatives walk a fine line on this issue, as there's resistance to giving the Federal Trade Commission and its chair, Lina Khan, too much power.
  • Bills that crack down on Chinese-owned tech companies that do business in the U.S. or have U.S.-based customers are also likely.
  • Tech CEOs are likely to be hauled back to the Hill, as well, in a reprise of a Trump administration ritual.

Who to watch: McCarthy has made criticism of Big Tech one of his priorities since the Trump era, and will surely continue in that vein if he takes the House gavel.

  • As chair of the the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) would be in charge of tech efforts there, with a focus on Section 230.
  • Senate Judiciary committee leader Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) partnered with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) on a Big Tech antitrust bill that almost made it to the full Senate floor last Congress, but efforts to revive that proposal will face bigger challenges with Republicans in charge.
  • Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the ranking Republican on Judiciary's antitrust subcommittee, is wary of Big Tech but even warier of giving the government agencies tasked with antitrust enforcement too much power.

Meanwhile: If Democrats hold onto control of either or both houses, expect them to keep hammering away at issues like antitrust, online privacy concerns, and gaps in content moderation that allow misinformation to spread and put children at risk.

Yes, but: The Democrats' tech agenda over the last two years has been swept away by shifting priorities and an evenly split Senate.

The intrigue: The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in cases about Section 230 as well as challenges to laws in Texas and Florida aiming to limit platforms' powers to moderate content.

  • Decisions in such cases could change the tech industry's landscape far more radically than anything Congress is likely to be able to manage.

What's next: Whatever happens Tuesday, the Biden administration says it plans to push Congress to approve antitrust legislation, among other priorities, during the coming post-election lame duck session.

  • "There is bipartisan support for these antitrust bills, and no reason why Congress can't act before the end of year," White House deputy press secretary Emilie Simons told Axios.
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