Some players in the technology sector didn’t hesitate to shower President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris with messages of congratulations since their projected win on Saturday. But that probably won’t stave off what is increasingly looking like an inevitability — tightening scrutiny over Big Tech.
The friction between tech giants and lawmakers has been intensifying for years, with officials on both sides of the aisle targeting a host of issues, from perceived conservative bias to concerns over data privacy and anti-competitive behavior. High-profile tech executives have repeatedly come before Congress to testify on these matters, or at least withstand verbal floggings over them in displays of political theater.
Now there’s a collective sigh emanating from some corners of Silicon Valley and other tech hubs.
On Instagram, Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post and a favorite target of President Trump’s ire, said Biden and Harris proved that unity, empathy and decency have not fallen out of fashion. “By voting in record numbers, the American people proved again that our democracy is strong,” he shared.
Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, thanked election officials and campaign workers on Twitter, adding that he’s looking forward to working with the Biden administration and Congressional leaders of both parties on a coronavirus response and other issues, “like poverty and climate change, and addressing issues of inequality and opportunity at home.”
Likewise, the company he founded also congratulated Biden and Harris via a Microsoft blog post. “If we are to move forward as a nation, we must build new bridges to close the gaps that divide us,” Brad Smith, president, wrote in calling for unity and bipartisan cooperation on an array of tech fronts, including expanding broadband Internet access, encouraging digital job skills, securing voting systems and reforming outdated legislation passed when dial-up modems were all the rage.
A Facebook post by Sheryl Sandberg noted that “for the first time in 231 years, our next vice president will be a Black and South Asian American woman who is the daughter of immigrants.” The chief operating officer characterized the victory as “a big step toward creating a government that reflects the diverse country we are.”
Twitter ceo Jack Dorsey hasn’t weighed in, and as of press time, neither have Apple’s Tim Cook or Sundar Pichai, of Google’s Alphabet. That’s not entirely surprising.
Big Tech seems to be operating in two modes. Executives are either expressing their happy thoughts around the election results, or staying mum — indicating that at least some companies realize they’re on a tight rope between a Democratic executive branch and a potentially Republican-controlled Senate. So no matter which way they break, they’re going to anger someone.
Their silence may end before long, but what likely won’t stop is the heavy scrutiny of their behavior.
Democratic lawmakers have made no secret of their concerns that the tech giants have become too powerful. One House Judiciary Committee report swells with 449 pages and took aim at alleged market abuses by Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook. The ink on the Justice Department’s antimonopoly lawsuit against Google, filed last month, has yet to dry.
Meanwhile, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been examining Section 230, a crucial protection that frees tech platforms such as Twitter and Facebook from liability over content their users share.
Biden has publicly communicated his view that the law “immediately should be revoked,” since such platforms haven’t done enough to stem disinformation. “It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false,” he said, “and we should be setting standards, not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy.”
Recently, Twitter and Facebook have been busy labeling content alleging voter fraud or describing the election as “stolen” with misinformation warnings and fact checks. Twitter has applied the policy to tweets from Trump himself, and Facebook also shut down groups like “Stop the Steal.”
Social media’s moves may sting the most for a POTUS and reelection campaign powered by the online sharing of grievances. They’ve also funneled fans and popular right-wing figures like Maria Bartiromo to newer platforms like Parler, which styles itself as a free speech platform.
The Fox News host said she was leaving Twitter last week and, since then, has amassed more than 720,000 followers on the alternative social app. Parler kicked this week off with an announcement that it has soared to the top of the Apple App Store’s list for free apps. TikTok ranked number three on the list as of Monday afternoon.
When it comes to social media’s outlook, the only real certainty right now is that the landscape seems to be morphing in real time. And Washington, D.C.’s view of the giants, at least so far, hasn’t.