The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tech companies pushed for net neutrality. Now Sen. Al Franken wants to turn it on them.

Sen. Al Franken. (Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images)

For years, tech companies have insisted that they're different from everything else. Take Facebook, which has long claimed that it's a simple tech platform, not a media entity. “Don't be evil,” Google once said to its employees, as though it were setting itself apart from the world's other massive corporations.

But now, some policymakers are increasingly insisting that firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter really aren't that special after all — and that perhaps it's time they were held to the same standard that many Americans expect of electricity companies or Internet providers.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) became the latest and most vocal of these critics Wednesday when, at a Washington conference, he called for tech companies to follow the same net neutrality principles that the federal government has applied to broadband companies such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast.

“We must now begin a thorough examination of big tech's practices in order to secure the free flow of information on the Internet,” Franken said, at an event hosted by the Open Markets Institute.

Franken then pressed harder, following up with an op-ed in the Guardian.

“Facebook, Google and Amazon, like ISPs, should be neutral in their treatment of the flow of lawful information and commerce on their platforms,” Franken wrote.

The double-barreled critique of major tech firms as nonneutral entities cuts against Silicon Valley's longtime message to the country and reflects the growing skepticism in Washington toward the industry.

Tech companies such as Twitter have advocated forcefully for strong net neutrality rules, arguing that without them, Internet providers could manipulate what Internet users can see and do on the Web.

“Without net neutrality in force, ISPs would even be able to block content they don’t like, reject apps and content that compete with their own offerings, and arbitrarily discriminate against particular content providers by prioritizing certain Internet traffic over theirs,” Twitter wrote in a blog post this year.

Spokesmen for Amazon and Twitter declined to comment. Facebook, Google, Netflix and the Internet Association, an industry trade group, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Tech companies have been wary of being regulated like other industries. When federal officials sought to give consumers more privacy protections in 2016 by applying new limits on how Internet providers could mine and share customer data, Silicon Valley firms approached the proposal cautiously, analysts said, because they feared that such regulation could someday extend to cover their own data-driven ad businesses, too.

Other policymakers, such as Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), have proposed similar privacy legislation that would affect Internet providers and tech companies equally. While that bill has largely stalled, it — together with Franken's speech — show that members of both major parties are interested in regulating tech companies as supposedly neutral conduits.

The tech industry's positive reputation in Washington until recently has helped inoculate it from regulatory pressure, some analysts say. But the political winds have turned as Americans have learned more about Silicon Valley's role in the 2016 presidential election — and that could expose it to stricter rules.

“It doesn't seem they have the same pull they used to,” said Hal Singer, an economist at George Washington University's Institute of Public Policy. “I don't think that Google should be getting exceptions because of its connections in D.C.”