Waking Up to a Monster

By Rafael Hoffman

Bipartisan agreement is hard to come by in Washington on matters of any great importance.

Yet, efforts to rein in big tech seem to offer a promising opening for officials from disparate corners of the political spectrum to work together toward substantive change. Both sides agree that Silicon Valley holds too much power over the market and people’s lives, that it is abusing that power and causing significant harm to users, and that government has been derelict in cutting it down to size.

This meeting of the minds has produced over a dozen bills with many odd-couple co-sponsors.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Thursday, March 23, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

In the wake of the Facebook files exposé by The Wall Street Journal and testimony by whistleblower Frances Haugen, the extent to which the company now branded Meta was aware of the deep harm it was causing to young people, and how little it did in response, led to a series of congressional hearings and calls for regulation. A similar routine was acted out this year when more evidence of the harm caused by TikTok emerged. 

The issue made it to this year’s State of the Union address, with President Joseph Biden backing legislation to curb big tech’s collection and exploitation of children’s personal data.

“We must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit,” he said.

With calls for action and several already drafted bills, the nation should be on its way to comprehensively addressing the social and economic ills posed by Silicon Valley.

Yet despite seeming agreement about this multifaceted threat, Washington has very little to show for its apparent concern.

‘Down a Rabbit Hole’

One issue that garnered wide agreement about the pernicious nature of big tech’s motives is the way data collection and algorithms have been utilized to target young people for advertising and to feed them with content that will maximize their screen time.

The focus of this phenomenon has been users under 18, though many ill effects impact adults as well

“If the time in a person’s day is a pie chart, tech company’s goal is to acquire more of that pie and keep you on the device longer for more data collection, to sell more ads, and feed their huge revenue stream. Every aspect of the experience they try to create is built on these considerations. It’s built to be addictive and, if Facebook were a drug, society would be insisting that no one uses it,” said Jake Denton, research associate at the Heritage Foundation’s Tech Policy Center.

Rising awareness of the extent to which big tech uses people’s time online to gather information about them has led to calls for greater privacy protections, particularly for minors.

Yet ill effects run far deeper.

“We now have a generation that’s grown up online, and a lot of them are removed from society in a sense. They’ve missed opportunities while they were busy consuming horrific content,” said Mr. Denton. 

The Wall Street Journal’s “Facebook Files” series, corroborated by Mrs. Haugen’s whistleblower testimony, laid bare the extent to which that forum, and others like it, have a hand in harming young people, particularly teenage girls. Facebook held clear data that its product led many to eating disorders and other severe mental health issues, with some stories ending in suicide.

“As currently designed, algorithms can pull kids down a rabbit hole,” said Haley Hinkle, policy counsel at Fair Play for Kids. “It is not a long trip between looking into healthy eating habits and getting instructions to essentially starve yourself or engage in other forms of self-harm.” 

Legislative attempts to address these issues abound. 

Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn and Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal’s “Kids Online Safety Act” seeks to provide options to block companies from collecting data from minors, parental controls to identify harmful content, and to hold companies responsible for promoting material encouraging destructive behavior.

“Some of these bills do the most urgent triage,” said Mrs. Hinkle. “Our central goal is keeping kids offline for as long as possible. Beyond that, we think it’s important to shift responsibility to companies. Right now, even many parents who are the most careful are seeing their children suffer greatly.”

Bans on TikTok have picked up support. Many accused the forum of deliberately harming American youths while marketing an alternative version for use in China that limits screen time and promotes educational content. Some fear that its close linkage to the Chinese Communist Party leads to serious concerns about its collection of U.S. user data, harming national security. Several bills to ban it have been introduced. One piece of bipartisan legislation does not specifically name TikTok but would give the Commerce Department wide authority to monitor and restrict foreign threats from online platforms.

COVID pandemic lockdowns drove Americans to spend yet more hours online, amid a time of heightened stress and social isolation. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that 57% of high school girls and 29% of boys the same age felt “persistently sad or hopeless” in 2021. Other studies showed that during 2019-21 young people’s screen time rose significantly.

In its wake, many pointed to social media for playing a role in a nationwide mental health crisis.

A bipartisan bill introduced by Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Katie Britt of Alabama and Democratic Senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Chris Murphy of Connecticut called for requiring parental consent for teenagers to use social media and banning it for children under 13. The bill would also prevent companies from using algorithms to feed content to users under the age of 18.

“Social media has a horrible impact on this nation’s mental health; it’s one of the most compelling reasons to support crackdowns on big tech,” said Josh Hammer, syndicated columnist, who serves as counsel and policy advisor at the Internet Accountability Project. “Instagram and TikTok are feeding poison into the minds of young people and structure their algorithms to do just that. Have no doubt that increased social media use and increased drug use, loneliness, and despondency are connected.”

High-Tech Robber Barons

In addition to its deleterious impact on users’ mental health, there is increasing concern over the economic damage caused by concentrating such a large share of market control in the hands of a few companies.

Several reports have accused Amazon of doctoring search algorithms to favor its own products, despite its promises of an open marketplace. Examples abound of other ways that Google and social media companies designed a playing field filled with barriers to entry by new or smaller actors.

This phenomenon elicited calls to mobilize existing anti-trust laws and to pass new ones to cut big tech’s market presence down to size, breaking some of its most powerful entities into smaller pieces.

“If you do a classic market power analysis, there’s a very strong argument that Google, Amazon, and Meta are monopolies on the scale that the Goulds and Vanderbilts once were. They’re the robber barons of our day, and should be treated as such,” said Mr. Hammer.

In recent decades, efforts against monopolization have largely been an issue for the political left, with its signature skepticism of big business. Now too, many Democrats in Congress such as Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar have been at the forefront of efforts to reign in big tech’s market dominance. It has also been a priority for the Biden administration’s Free Trade Commission (FTC) chair, Linda Kahn, though her legal efforts have largely been stymied in courts.

Yet, the present effort to curb big tech’s power has garnered a great deal of interest on the right as well. The latest reinduction of the bipartisan “American Innovation and Choice Online Act,” which aims to “restore competition online,” is co-sponsored by Republicans Senators Lindsey Graham, Charles Grassley, and Josh Hawley.

The Digital Consumer Protection Commission Act recently introduced by Senators Graham and Elizabeth Warren would create a new commission focused on big tech regulation. One of its key tasks would be to police “abuses of dominance committed by Big Tech firms.” The bill also addresses privacy concerns and would require more transparency of how forums operate.

“Antitrust was never meant to be a partisan issue. It’s trying to restore a preexisting paradigm. Breaking up monopolies is not anti-market, it’s pro-market,” said Mr. Hammer. “The Department of Justice has a permanent antitrust division in it. That tells you that the way to view this is not as regulation, but as law enforcement.”

Undue Influence

Some of the conservative support for antitrust action is born of a broader movement on the right to favor small businesses interests and rein in corporate power, which has increasingly used its position to promote progressive agendas.

“[Hesitancy] on these issues were born at a time when corporate America was either our friend or, at least, not our enemy. Today’s big business, especially big tech, are deeply hostile to conservatives,” said Mr. Hammer.  

Conservatives have highlighted bias they face from big tech’s hold on public information. Google’s algorithms have been accused of being designed to promote left-wing narratives and bury opposing ones.

Examples of that hostility abound on forums themselves.

Eight years after it was sealed, a Google search for “Iran nuclear deal” still produces the Obama administration’s touting its “historic” agreement. A search for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), one of America’s most prominent religious liberty law firms, pulls up its website and directly under it a link to the discredited far-left organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s listing of ADF as an “extremist group.” 

In 2020, testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee by libertarian legal expert Robert Epstein presented studies of search data that suggested “biased search results” tipped 2.6 million votes toward Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

“There’s clearly a lot of human interference. If you make a search, especially one that’s political, you get a stream of results that doesn’t give you answers or that gives you a preconceived talking point,” said Mr. Denton. “This is not a bias-free experience; it’s meticulously curated to make the views that Silicon Valley thinks are safe for you mainstream.”

Elon Musk, who owns Twitter, Tesla and SpaceX, speaks at the Vivatech fair, June 16, 2023, in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

The “Twitter Files” revealed a concerted effort to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story as it broke in the final stages of the 2020 presidential campaign. Actions by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and later the Biden administration to control views over the origins and approaches to managing the COVID pandemic are the subject of a lawsuit currently being litigated in Louisiana.

One approach to addressing these biases focuses on reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which shields internet actors from liability and charges them with policing harmful content. Many feel that law has a significant role in allowing companies to put their thumb of preferred narratives on the scale, without being held accountable for outcomes.

A bill introduced in 2020 by Senator Hawley and joined by several other GOP Senators would make 230’s protections contingent on operation in “good faith,” allowing users to sue in instances where those terms are violated.

Another Republican bill would clarify Section 230’s intentions and hold tech companies accountable for “content moderation.” Other GOP bills proposed similar changes to hold platforms to their word to provide neutral spaces.

While there is bipartisan support for efforts to protect children, guard privacy, and fight monopolization, addressing bias against Silicon Valley’s disfavored positions is a project of the right. Democrats have largely worked in the opposite direction, criticizing tech leaders for allowing their forums to spread what they tag as “disinformation.”

Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University, on Oct. 17, 2019, in Washington. European Union hits Facebook parent Meta with record $1.3 billion fine over transfers of user data to US. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

“It’s not hard to see why 230 compromise is not in the offing; the two parties are saying opposite things,” said Mr. Hammer. “Republicans tend to want more speech and Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Sheldon Whitehouse are criticizing Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk for allowing too much speech.”

Some feel that laws governing “common carriers” like the postal service or phone companies should be updated to include online forums. Such a change would forbid companies from regulating speech based on their preferences, just as the post office cannot refuse to deliver mail out of disagreement with the message therein.

Tennessee Republican Bill Hagerty introduced a bill in 2021 that would do that, as well as reforming Section 230.

“Common carrier regulations on Google and Meta would make it less likely to have government reaching out to them to do its dirty work,” he said. “If you apply this doctrine to algorithms, it precludes some mischievous programmer from ranking stories he prefers to page one over page two. It would probably also require companies to release their algorithms and make them open source.”

(Getty Images)

Big Tech’s Big Payoff

With a lively national discussion over the harms big tech perpetrates on users, and many congressional bills, several with bipartisan support, the baffling question remains: Why has so little been done? Some regulatory adjustments have been made at the federal level and many states have enacted laws dealing with social media, yet Congress has voted on very few of the proposed bills and almost none have been passed into law.

Some generously blamed a bevy of issues facing Washington for relegating tech regulation to a back burner that does not get much attention from party leaders. That is compounded by the fact that years of inaction have allowed big tech to evolve into a huge untamed entity leaving some unsure if it can still be controlled. 

“It’s hard to legislate anything,” said Mrs. Hinkle. “This is very new to Washington. It takes a lot of study and conversation to get a critical majority of lawmakers into place. … It’s true the time to act was yesterday, but that’s every reason to vote on these bills. We’re not despondent.” 

The cynical, but seemingly likely, cause for inaction is the millions big tech poured into political campaigns and lobbying on Capitol Hill.

The roots of the impasse are as bipartisan as some legislation. Senate Majority leader Charles Schumer was credited with keeping the most robust antitrust bills from reaching floor votes. Though Speaker Kevin McCarthy used sharp rhetoric against big tech, the California congressman has long ties to Silicon Valley and has allowed for little legislation affecting it to reach the House floor. 

Antitrust bills have been thwarted by an ideologically diverse list of politicians, from Ohio Republican Congressman Jim Jordan to California Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren.

Besides a small group in Congress who have publicly forsworn big tech donations, most have received small ticket contributions in the thousands from Google, Amazon, and others. Party campaign committees have received more — over $100,000 in recent years.

Big ticket donations come mostly from top executives at tech companies and have largely gone to Democrats. 

According to OpenSecrets, a research organization that tracks data on campaign finance and lobbying, employees at Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft donated a combined $12.3 million to President Biden’s 2020 campaign. In 2020, these executives gave close to $50 million to various Democratic campaign PACs. Georgia Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, whose victories handed the Democrats power of the Senate in 2021, were top recipients.

“They have infinite money to spend,” said Mr. Denton. “No one, not even big pharma, has had their level of success in capturing the regulatory process. Every time big tech rolls out a new platform, government just trusts them to do whatever they want. Something about it doesn’t pass the smell test.”

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