Donald Trump has spent the better part of his presidency railing against the big tech companies, accusing them of anti-conservative bias and demanding that Congress strip them of their legal protections.
Now he and his supporters are largely powerless to respond as the same companies muzzle him and one of their favorite alternative platforms.
Trump and his allies are seizing on the latest clampdowns by Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon to fire up conservative outrage over being kneecapped by Silicon Valley — a theme the GOP hopes to ride as a campaign message into 2022 and beyond. But with Democrats set to take power in Washington, Republicans have few if any immediate avenues for punishing the companies that squelched Trump’s social media accounts and knocked the free-wheeling Parler platform offline after last week’s deadly Capitol assault.
“There’s just not any options left” before Inauguration Day, one GOP congressional aide said Monday.
“I don’t think that Trump has many options,” said Rachel Bovard, senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute, a right-leaning political advocacy group. “Should he put out an executive order, it’ll just be reversed … and the same goes for Republicans. They don’t have power in any meaningful way right now.”
Responding to tech companies’ recent actions is still the No. 3 priority for Republicans right now, behind sorting out their reaction to the rioting on Capitol Hill and the brewing impeachment battle, a second GOP congressional aide said. But the aide said the party, traditionally opposed to regulatory burdens on business, has no clear consensus on how to move forward on the tech front.
“I don’t think that anyone has coalesced around any specific response," the aide said.
It all adds up to a big loss of influence for a party whose lawmakers have hauled in Silicon Valley CEOs for numerous hearings in recent years — and for the president whose appointees filed two major antitrust suits last fall against Google and Facebook. Washington’s power struggle with Silicon Valley remains very much alive, but the incoming Democratic Congress and President-elect Joe Biden will largely decide where it goes next.
One of the only potential regulatory avenues left is a rulemaking effort that the Federal Communications Communication announced in October, requested by Trump, which could narrow legal protections for the online industry. But the FCC’s last Trump-era meeting is on Wednesday, and Chair Ajit Pai said last week that he doesn’t plan to bring it up.
Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro took a swipe at Pai’s decision. “Backbones in short supply in the DC Swamp,” he tweeted over the weekend.
Some of the big tech companies’ critics took stabs at reprisals anyway. Parler filed an antitrust suit Monday against Amazon, which had canceled the platform’s web hosting service for what it called a failure to moderate violent rhetoric among its users. Trump supporters called a protest Monday morning outside Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, though local news reports said it drew a sparse crowd. An internet provider in Idaho blocked access to Twitter and Facebook for what it called censorship.
Trump has hinted that he may have other tricks up his sleeve. On Friday night, when Twitter permanently suspended his personal and campaign accounts, he said in a White House statement that he was weighing a range of responses, including possibly setting up “our own platform in the near future.”
But for the Republicans whose reign in Washington is sunsetting, the main response was to cry foul, with some calling for Congress or the executive branch to act.
“Amazon, Google and Apple’s decisions to block the download or use of Parler by their consumers is dangerous,” tweeted Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.). “This blatant monopolistic behavior is designed to shut down debate and silence conservatives.”
Barr added that he was “calling on the DOJ to initiate investigations of possible antitrust violations by these tech giants.”
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), one of the lawmakers leading bipartisan efforts in the House to update U.S. antitrust laws, said GOP officials should direct their anger at the companies’ business practices.
“Big Tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple have used their monopoly power to censor speech,” he tweeted Sunday. “Until Republicans understand that antitrust enforcement is the answer, these companies will continue to abuse their power.”
After Amazon announced its Parler takedown this weekend, Buck tweeted that he’ll be “introducing legislation this Congress to hold Amazon accountable for their anticompetitive behavior.”
Some Republicans have also indicated they plan to channel their fury into efforts to roll back or overhaul a crucial legal liability shield for the online industry, known as Section 230. That’s the same law that Trump unsuccessfully demanded last year that Congress repeal, a plea that failed to gain traction even in the GOP-controlled Senate.
“I’m more determined than ever to strip Section 230 protections from Big Tech (Twitter) that let them be immune from lawsuits,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted in response to Twitter banning Trump.
But with Democrats set to lead those negotiations, GOP complaints about ideological bias will have a lot less sway. Instead, Democrats’ anger at Silicon Valley is driven mainly by issues like political falsehoods, hate speech and threats of violence festering online.
Trump’s own efforts to use the powers of the executive branch to hammer social media companies for allegedly censoring conservatives have basically petered out, even before Republicans lost the White House and Senate.
The president signed an executive order in May asking federal agencies to pare back Section 230’s legal protections, which shield online platforms from lawsuits over content their users post and give them broad leeway to take it down. But neither the FCC nor the Federal Trade Commission has taken any significant action on that request, and Democrats in Congress have rejected the idea of repealing the law.
“I think it needs to be revised, but you cannot repeal it or else you will destroy protections for small businesses and entrepreneurs working their way up,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a news conference in December.
Trump’s calls for a full repeal have also caused confusion among some congressional Republicans, according to one aide, given that lawmakers of both parties have long pushed for changing but not revoking the law.
“The playbook is totally torn up” on Section 230, said one GOP congressional aide.
The bias issue is also not likely to make it into any of the flurry of federal and state government antitrust cases hitting the tech giants — even though defenders of Trump and Parler say the decisions to knock them offline are a clear example of an abuse of Silicon Valley’s market dominance.
For example, the antitrust suit that the Justice Department and 11 states filed against Google in October didn’t include allegations of ideological discrimination, despite hopes by some Republicans. In the meantime, state attorneys general have continued investigating Google over antitrust concerns related to its Play Store — the same app store that it kicked Parler off of last week.
But that multistate investigation is bipartisan, led by attorneys general from Utah, New York, Tennessee and North Carolina, and the states have sought to keep politically fraught aspects out of their antitrust complaints. The Democratic attorneys general aren’t likely to back a suit that makes Parler’s removal a key part of an antitrust case against Google.
One thing that may need to happen before the GOP can really bring consequences to the tech giants: Republicans need to agree among themselves on how they want to address the companies’ behavior, said Bovard, adding that the party has long been splintered among factions.
“I think their base is pissed, quite frankly, that they feel like they wasted four years of chest thumping and hearings and rhetoric, but no real action,” she said. “So I think now is the time for Republicans to build up their policy positions so the minute when they reemerge in a position of power, they have a policy agenda that they are ready to enact.”
Leah Nylen contributed to this report.
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