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The GOP split on handling Big Tech vs. Big Media

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg leaves after a meeting with U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Two mega-stories in media are hitting Washington at the same time, and Republicans are split on how to manage them.

Why it matters: At the heart of the tension is whether government should regulate tech companies (like Facebook) or deregulate legacy media companies (like Sinclair Broadcast Group) to allow them to compete with tech. Passing meaningful legislation to regulate industry usually takes consensus, and a split Republican Party would make consensus difficult.

Bottom line: Lawmakers are being torn between the pressure to take tech regulation seriously in light of recent events and their traditional philosophies of deregulation.

Some Republicans in Congress are likely to put on a show in front of live television audiences tomorrow and Wednesday when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies.

These Republicans, like Sens. John Thune and John Kennedy, have been more open to talks of industry regulation ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal erupted. But they're not over the traditional conservative aversion to regulation — let alone representative of the majority of their colleagues on Capitol Hill and at the FCC.

  • Speaking to a small group of broadcasting executives at the National Association of Broadcasters annual meeting in Las Vegas, Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly touted the FCC’s accomplishments rolling back regulations that have allowed Sinclair Broadcasting Group to grow exponentially.
"It’s quite evident that there are more platforms and services pushing video content and viewpoints to the American public. To me that doesn’t mean regulate more to combat against wild, wild West of content," said O'Rielly. "Instead it means getting out of the way so everyone, including broadcasters can survive, thrive and compete in todays and tomorrows competitive media marketplace."
  • House Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) echoed his thoughts: “There is this argument about how legacy regulation shackles legacy industries when new entrants come about without regulation … I’m more in the light-touch regulation side. Clean out the under-brush of legacy regulation side and let people compete in the market decide.”

At the same time, some Republicans on Capitol Hill seem to believe that regulation of Facebook and other online platforms is on the table. "Part of this is fleshing out what's Facebook's responsibility. What role do we have as policymakers, our regulators, government etc.? And where are those lines," Sen. Thune told reporters Monday. "We're weighing it."

The bigger picture: O'Rielly represents hard-line conservatives who are staunchly opposed to regulation. Walden, who himself has said that regulations will come if tech companies don't step up, is caught somewhere in the middle, along with Thune, his counterpart in the Senate.

Our thought bubble: Republicans are going into Tuesday's hearings looking for reasons not to have to regulate the tech companies.

Case-in-point:

Quote"I’m interested in Facebook regulating itself and solving the problems...I hope he’ll use his time to say ‘Hey, I’m on this.’”
— Sen. John Kennedy on Monday

Go deeper: Washington has been feeding uncertainty in a changing media landscape