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Republicans get on the anti-Big Tech bandwagon

Smartphone with an elephant on the screen
Illustration: Sarah Grillo / Axios

The backlash against the power players of Silicon Valley is testing pro-business tendencies of Republicans, including the influential chairs of the commerce committees in the House and Senate, and giving conservative activists a new cause.

Why it matters: It's rare for powerful Republicans to pressure corporations that haven't run afoul of the law — but tech is proving an exception to that rule, highlighting the ways in which political attitudes toward the industry have changed in the last year.

Republicans are following concerns from the conservative base that doesn't trust the companies or feels left behind by them. Here are the 2 factions in the Republican assault:

  • Hardline conservative activists who view tech companies as opposed to their views and policy positions. That ranges from Phil Kerpen, who distributed an early plan last year to regulate Facebook and Google, to the conservative journalist Peter Schweizer, who will debut a film critical of Big Tech later this year.
  • Establishment Republican lawmakers who usually try to avoid regulation but are frustrated by Silicon Valley's misbehavior. They've also watched their longtime allies in the software and telecom industries seize on the tech backlash in the last year. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune told reporters this week that while he's "not a fan of regulation" he expects more "responsiveness" and "transparency" from tech companies. House Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. Greg Walden said at a February Axios event that if “responsibility doesn’t flow, then regulation will."

But, but but... The zeal to go after the tech companies among activists is being countered by free-market policy experts whose views long defined Republican orthodoxy on tech issues. Jesse Blumenthal, who manages the Charles Koch Institute's work on tech, said that tech and antitrust experts on the right have not embraced the critical view of tech giants — in contrast to their counterparts on the left.

The tension inside the party played out in a recent meeting organized by Americans for Tax Reform when a representative of the libertarian-leaning Lincoln Network presented the organization’s survey showing that conservatives feel uncomfortable in Silicon Valley.

  • Multiple attendees expressed worries that the survey could be used to justify regulation, according to sources in the room.
  • A Facebook staffer who specializes in conservative outreach also pushed back on the survey's findings.
  • Lincoln Network’s Co-Founder and President Aaron Ginn told Axios the survey was meant simply to portray what life is like for conservatives in Silicon Valley, not encourage regulation.
  • (The Americans for Tax Reform employee who organized the meeting, Katie McAuliffe, declined to comment because the gathering was off the record.)

The bottom line: After some reliable Democratic defenders started leveling criticism at Big Tech, it can't count on a defense from typically pro-business Republicans.