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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Out of power in D.C., Republicans dial up tech offensive in state houses

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Republicans may be in the minority in the nation’s capital — but that’s not stopping them from pushing punitive new laws against social media companies over allegations of bias. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday signed into law a proposal to ban large social media platforms from blocking or taking down users’ posts based on their political viewpoints, a move that escalates the standoff between Silicon Valley giants and GOP officials at the state level. 

“It is now law that conservative viewpoints in Texas cannot be banned on social media,” Abbott said, as my colleague Cat Zakrzewski reports.

With Democrats controlling Congress and the White House, Republicans have little-to-no options to meaningfully target the tech companies over accusations of censorship at the federal level. 

But at the state level — where they hold full control of 23 state governments to the Democrats’ 15 — GOP leaders are pressing their advantage to launch new attacks.

Fiercely opposed by the tech industry and questioned by legal experts, the Texas measure follows a similarly themed proposal signed into law in Florida in May that barred social media companies from banning politicians during the lead up to an election.

Those state-level GOP-led measures stand in contrast to federal tech efforts, which have focused on alleged competitive abuses and monopolistic behavior by the digital giants, claims which enjoy bipartisan support.

The Florida law was blocked in June by a federal judge who challenged its constitutionality, a decision that came as a result of a lawsuit swiftly brought by tech trade groups against the law. Texas’s new law is likely to face similar challenges from industry groups, who have already pilloried the measure as unconstitutional and argued it would cause harm online.

"By tying digital services' hands, this unconstitutional law will put Texans at greater risk of exposure to disinformation, propaganda and extremism,” said Matt Schruers, president of the trade association CCIA, which counts Facebook, Google and Twitter as members. “It’s neither good policy nor good politics for Texas to make the Internet a safe space for bad actors.”

Unless Republicans regain some control in Washington during the 2022 and 2024 elections, however, their options are limited on the “bias” front, said Jon Schweppe, director of policy and government affairs at the conservative-leaning American Principles Project.

“Conservatives are looking for a solution, and we're not going to get it federally for a very long time,” he said. “So we're kind of looking to states and the court as our only outs here.” 

Even if the new Texas law is defeated, Schweppe argued GOP officials can still benefit by pressing their case in the courts — where Republicans sought to flood the zone during the Trump administration with conservative jurists — and trying different legal arguments to see if anything sticks. And he said the push could inspire other efforts around the country. 

“If it was struck down or whatever, I think there would be people learning from that and looking to another state and trying it again, and again and again, until they’re successful,” he said.

The proposals also serve as red meat for a Republican base that is increasingly incensed at Silicon Valley companies who they say are censoring conservatives. And that means even if their legislative efforts get shot down by the courts, GOP leaders stand to benefit politically and grow their national profiles by targeting industry giants. 

It’s a growing trend. Ohio Senate hopeful J.D. Vance drew national attention recently for hammering Twitter for briefly suspending, and later reinstating, his campaign’s press account. (Twitter said the account was suspended in error, according to Bloomberg.)

Blake Masters, a Senate candidate in Arizona and close ally to tech titan Peter Thiel, this week penned a scathing op-ed in the Wall Street Journal taking aim at social media companies he said “keep getting bigger, more powerful and more abusive.”

“It's politically beneficial to them,” Schweppe acknowledged. “But I also think ... if you fight for things that you believe in and fight for things that the base believes in, they reward you for it.”

Our top tabs

House lawmakers unveiled a $1 billion plan to go after Big Tech as part of a major spending package. 

The House Democrats’ proposal would allocate $1 billion for a digital division at the Federal Trade Commission that would go after online privacy violations and other Internet issues, Tony Romm and Cat Zakrzewski report. Lawmakers are racing to finalize the sprawling, $3.5 trillion spending plan by next week. 

The $1 billion would represent a 30 percent increase in the FTC’s projected appropriations over the next 10 years. A wave of merger applications has strained the commission’s budget, FTC Chair Lina Khan said in July. 

Facebook added a top Democratic congressional staffer to its lobbying ranks.

John Branscome, the leading Democratic tech staffer on the Senate Commerce Committee and a former aide at the Federal Communications Commission, will join Facebook's federal policy team next month, Politico's Emily Birnbaum reports. Facebook during the past two years has hired away staffers from other top Democrats, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Branscome brings to Facebook close ties to Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and allies in President Joe Biden’s administration. Cantwell's panel has primary jurisdiction over key issues including data privacy, broadband and the liability protections that shield digital platforms from lawsuits over user content.

Activists plan to pressure tech giants to expand protections for workers trying to expose discrimination.

The push comes as California is on the heels of enacting legislation to prevent nondisclosure agreements from being enforced against workers reporting alleged discrimination, Cat Zakrzewski reports. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) could imminently sign the legislation, which would just apply to California workers, into law. 

“There is no reason why you should have different labor protections for employees in different places,” said former Pinterest public policy manager Ifeoma Ozoma, who is planning the campaign with other advocates. “Particularly if you’re a large company, and the majority of your workforce is based in California.” 

Rant and rave

The reviews are in for Facebook's new camera glasses. BuzzFeed News' Katie Notopoulos taped over the warning light of the glasses she tested, an apparent violation of their terms of service. The New York Times' Ryan Mac:

Tiffany C. Li, an assistant professor of law at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, noted that the law hasn't caught up:

Even Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made fun of Facebook's teaser video for the glasses, which showed a Facebook executive throwing pillows at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg:

Inside the industry

Apple rebuffs Epic request to restore Fortnite developer account in South Korea (Reuters)

Republican lawmakers raise alarm about U.S. approval of auto chips for Huawei (Reuters)

Workforce report

Microsoft gives up predicting when its US offices will fully reopen (The Verge)

Trending

How Would Twitter and Facebook Have Influenced How We See 9/11? (Bloomberg)

Andrew Yang to launch a third party (Politico)

Daybook

  • UK Innovate at the University of Kentucky, Columbia Technology Ventures, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and AUTM host the U.S. Innovation Competitiveness Summit, which begins Sept. 13. 
  • The Stanford Internet Observatory hosts an event on end-to-end encryption proposals at noon on Sept. 14. 
  • Bruno Lasserre, the Chief Justice and Vice President of France’s Council of State, discusses online privacy policy at an Atlantic Council event on Sept. 15 at 9:15 a.m. 
  • New America’s Open Technology Institute holds an event on high-risk AI on Sept. 15 at 1:30 p.m. 

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