This week, a video of a sparring Mark Zuckerberg went viral, but if you want to see real jiu jitsu, pay attention to what’s been happening in the nation’s capital, where Democrats and Republicans can’t see past their differences to rein in the Silicon Valley giants that both sides generally agree should be cut down to size. The problem, of course, is that Democrats are also worried about moderation of “disinformation,” while the G.O.P. is obsessed with censorship—specifically, the fear that Big Tech platforms are suppressing conservative voices. Industry lobbyists couldn’t have devised a better wedge issue, themselves.
Take what happened at the Senate Judiciary Committee this past Thursday. Once-and-future presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar, fresh off a plucky antitrust spiel at Kara Swisher’s Code Conference in L.A., returned to Washington to introduce a bipartisan bill that would allow small news outlets to collectively negotiate the terms by which their content can appear on digital platforms. Republicans John Kennedy and Rand Paul, along with Democrats Cory Booker and Sheldon Whitehouse, were among the co-sponsors ready to push it forward. Then it all collapsed in a heartbeat.
Upon talk in tech policy circles about how the law might impact the openness of the internet, Ted Cruz prevailed upon his Republican colleagues to insert a provision designed to prevent collusion on content moderation. “What is preeminent to me is whether this bill is going to increase or decrease censorship,” explained Cruz. “The agreement we had was blown up,” said Klobuchar, sighing, and pulling the bill from further consideration.
The outcome wasn’t particularly surprising. After all, look at Klobuchar’s larger antitrust package—a bill that would stop tech giants from giving a higher priority to their own products and services on their own platforms. That, too, appears doomed, but this time because Democrats are cornered about moderation. Could such a law prevent Apple or Google from banning an app that spews disinformation? That’s the poison pill that is hanging over all these backroom negotiations.
It’s all symptomatic of the deep distrust that has poisoned the political atmosphere and made otherwise bipartisan legislation impossible. Most everyone in Washington seems to agree that the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon are too big, anticompetitive, and unaccountable, but their real fear is that any changes to their algorithms will inadvertently benefit the other side. And then politicians like Cruz, who once as a big firm lawyer helped Google stop a Texas investigation into the company’s anti-competitive practices, step in with the ultimate buzz kill.