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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

The biggest threat to lawmakers’ Big Tech antitrust agenda: Time

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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T.G.I.F. Technology 202 subscribers! Below: State leaders launch an investigation into Facebook — I mean, Meta — and Tesla faces a sexual harassment lawsuit. First up:

The biggest threat to lawmakers’ Big Tech antitrust agenda: Time

With Democrats controlling Washington, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has a unique chance this Congress to revamp the nation’s antitrust laws in a bid to rein in tech giants like Google and Apple. To succeed, they will need to weave through a complex web of political agendas and rally enough support to get their bills over the finish line.

The single biggest threat to their efforts may be quite simple: running out of time. 

President Biden’s slumping approval ratings and potential GOP gains in the House due to redistricting have cast doubt on Democrats’ ability to hang onto full control of Congress after the midterms, which could be key to executing the tech antitrust agenda.  

While forecasting election outcomes is always fraught, the mere prospect of Democrats losing control of Congress poses a very real threat to lawmakers’ antitrust plans. They include proposals aimed at blocking tech giants from prioritizing their own products over rivals', limit their ability to buy up emerging competitors and put new restrictions on their app stores, among others.

“The political reality is that we have this Congress to really get something done in a bipartisan way on antitrust,” said Jon Schweppe, director of policy and government affairs at the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank that supports the antitrust bills.

Public Citizen competition policy advocate Alex Harman, whose progressive advocacy group also backs the proposals, declined to speculate on how the midterm elections will shake out. But he acknowledged that timing could be a factor as the bills are considered.   

“I have operated in the world in which [GOP control] is a possibility, so I tend to think of our window of getting the stuff done before then, before the midterms,” he said.

A GOP takeover of the House could doom lawmakers’ chances of advancing most of the bipartisan antitrust proposals targeting the tech giants. 

The two lawmakers who would be in pole position to control whether the bills are marked up and moved to the floor in a GOP-led House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), are both vocal opponents of the push.

In June, McCarthy signaled he opposes giving antitrust regulators too much power and that House Republicans plan to target Big Tech companies by focusing on issues around “free speech and free enterprise.” That’s a nod to Republican allegations that major digital platforms censor conservatives and to concerns from tech trade groups and industry-friendly lawmakers that the antitrust bills would stifle innovation. 

During a podcast earlier this month with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who supports the antitrust package, Jordan made clear his priorities leading the Judiciary Committee would be speech, not antitrust. “What Big Tech in collusion with big government is doing in this cancel-culture world we live in is so wrong … that’s what the Judiciary Committee has to focus on,” said Jordan, who voted against most of the proposals under consideration during a committee markup in June.

“They’ll still have an anti-Big Tech agenda, but it will be focused on Section 230,” said Schweppe, a reference to the decades-old law that shields digital platforms from lawsuits for hosting and moderating user content.

Whether Democrats retain control of the Senate may not be as crucial for lawmakers’ antitrust plans. Unlike in the House, advancing legislation in the Senate typically requires bipartisan support, since it takes more than just a simple majority to clear most bills. That makes it harder for party leaders to unilaterally block a bipartisan effort. 

And unlike the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust proposals, some of their Senate companions have the support of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). That means if Grassley wins reelection in 2022 and Republicans retake the Senate, there would still be an ally for the antitrust push atop the key Judiciary panel. 

But proponents of the push aren’t holding out hope that a GOP-led Senate would put antitrust legislation atop its agenda.

“I just don’t see Mitch McConnell running these bills as a priority,” Harman said.

The dynamics mean it could be crucial for the bills’ backers to get their proposals passed before the midterms. Lead lawmakers have expressed confidence in their ability to build support for the antitrust push this Congress. But legislative plans on Capitol Hill have a tendency to run behind schedule. 

Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), one of the campaign’s lead negotiators and the chair of the House’s antitrust panel, said earlier this year that they had the “expectation that we’ll be in a position to bring the bills to the floor” by the fall. 

The tail end of that target is rapidly approaching. And if those plans slip into next year, they run the risk of getting bogged down during an election year, when legislating in Congress can slow down. Lawmakers will also need to contend with a slew of other legislative priorities, including pandemic recovery.

Cicilline told The Technology 202 on Friday that after the recently signed infrastructure bill, the antitrust package “will be the next major bipartisan win for this Congress."

He added, “There is no question that momentum is building to move this bipartisan package of bills forward — especially in light of the Facebook revelations."

Harman argued that, unless antitrust becomes a divisive issue on the campaign trail, the window to pass the bills “is pretty much up until the election.”

To Schweppe, the forecast is still unclear. “I think there’s plenty of bipartisan support for the bills in both the House and Senate, but the question here is will leadership move on this? Is this going to be prioritized in an election year? … I think it is really up in the air right now,” Schweppe said.

Our top tabs

A bipartisan group of state attorneys general is investigating Instagram and Facebook parent Meta

They’re looking into whether the company broke consumer protection laws by promoting its products to children and teens, Cat Zakrzewski reports

The investigation highlights increasing regulatory scrutiny in the wake of reports on internal company research into its products’ harms. “The attorneys general say the investigation focuses on the techniques the social networking giant uses to increase the frequency and duration of engagement by young users, as well as the harms that may be caused by this continued interaction,” Cat writes.

“Facebook, now Meta, has failed to protect young people on its platforms and instead chose to ignore or, in some cases, double-down on known manipulations that pose a real threat to physical and mental health — exploiting children in the interest of profit,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) said. “Meta can no longer ignore the threat that social media can pose to children for the benefit of their bottom line.”

Meta spokesman Andy Stone called the allegations “false” and said they “demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of the facts.” The company is working on parental controls and “exploring ways to provide even more age-appropriate experiences for teens by default,” Stone said.

A new lawsuit alleges “rampant sexual harassment at Tesla”

The lawsuit by Jessica Barraza, a production associate who works on the Tesla Model 3, argues that company fostered a culture of sexual harassment at its Fremont, Calif., factory, Faiz Siddiqui reports. Barraza says she was subjected to catcalling and aggressive physical touching. Three current and former Tesla workers corroborated aspects of her account. 

Barraza says Tesla did not address the harassment after she filed complaints to its human resources department in September and October. The Post viewed the complaints. Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s the latest accusation that the company fosters a workplace that is hostile to some of its workers. “The suit comes a month after Tesla was ordered to pay nearly $137 million to an employee a federal court found was subjected to racist abuse, discrimination and harassment at the Fremont plant,” Faiz writes.

The FCC voted to require phone companies to route messages to “988” to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

The companies have until July 2022 to implement the instruction, Axios’s Margaret Harding McGill reports. It comes nearly a year-and-a-half after the Federal Communications Commission told phone companies to route calls to 988 to the hotline by that deadline.

“By making it easier to text the Lifeline, the FCC aims to increase accessibility for communities at a higher risk of suicide and mental health crises,” Margaret writes. “The move is meant to help 988 become the three-digit number to use for mental health crises, much like 911 is the number for emergencies.”

Rant and rave

An investigation into Amazon by Wired and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting detailed the e-commerce giant’s security and privacy woes. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Professor Chris Gilliard:

The New York Times’s Shira Ovide:

Others looked ahead to the regulators. Castlebridge’s Daragh O Brien:

Agency scanner

Justice Department to defend tech protections Biden denounced (Politico)

Inside the industry

Facebook makes it easier for advertisers to avoid sensitive topics (Axios)

Hill happenings

Elizabeth Warren urges SEC to investigate Trump's SPAC deal (Reuters)

Privacy monitor

Amazon's dark secret: It has failed to protect your data (Wired)

Workforce report

Amazon will face Black Friday strikes and protests in 20 countries (Motherboard)

Trending

A group of crypto enthusiasts lost out on the auction to buy a rare copy of the U.S. Constitution (Rachel Lerman)

Daybook

  • Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Director Stefanie Tompkins and former secretary of defense Robert Gates participate in a Washington Post Live event today at 2:30 p.m.

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