The recent Facebook outage and allegations of wrongdoing by former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen have put the regulation of Big Tech back on the political agenda. The complaints towards major tech companies are diverse in nature but include a growing public discomfort with the companies’ use of personal data, their lack of transparency, their anti-union practices, and the increasing dependency of economic, political, and social activity on private digital infrastructure. These concerns are rising all while tech companies’ profits continue to increase. The heightened issue seems to have joined political wings together, though time will tell if their ideological differences will actually lead to sound policy changes.
There is considerable consensus between Democrats and Republicans in their rejection of Big Tech. Recent efforts from Biden’s administration and Congress are building momentum for antitrust reform. Last June, a group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced a package of five bills that aimed to limit platforms’ ability to complete mergers and prohibit owning business lines that present conflicts of interest.
This consensus reaches beyond Washington — according to a 2021 survey by Pew Research Center, 56% of Americans think major technology companies should be regulated more than they are now, and 68% believe these firms have too much power and influence in the economy. This view is shared across the political spectrum, including by 59% of conservative Republicans, 48% of liberal Republicans, 49% of moderate Democrats, and 70% of liberal Democrats. Since Pew Research Center asked the same question last year, there has been an increase in support for more Big Tech regulation across most of the political spectrum.
Despite the apparent agreement about limiting Big Tech’s growing power, there is not necessarily unity behind each party’s motivations. Naturally, different ideologies characterize Democrats and Republicans. Democrats are concerned over how tech giants are limiting competition and encouraging false content and hate speech. Meanwhile, Republicans are claiming a need to defend free speech, as exemplified by their uproar over Twitter’s banning of former President Trump and their questioning of Section 230, a part of the Communications Decency Act that allows internet firms to moderate user content while protecting the firms from liability. Moreover, both sides hold a fundamentally different conception of the role the government should have in addressing content moderation and misinformation. Even on bipartisan antitrust reform efforts, as others have pointed out, conservatives oppose Biden’s empowerment of the Federal Trade Commission.
This diffuse consensus raises concerns about the shape that future policy to regulate Big Tech will take. As the saying goes, good politics could lead to bad policy. Despite the fact that politics demands making concessions to form coalitions — and often benefits from ambiguous goals — good policymaking requires precision and clear purpose. In order to address each of the several challenges that digital dominance poses to democracy, policymakers will have to decide what their goals are and the most efficient instruments to achieve them. Certainly, a level of bipartisan agreement is necessary, but clear ideological differences show there is still a long way to go.