Big Tech is bracing for a regulatory reckoning following the siege of the Capitol, the same day Democrats won control of the Senate.
The riotous actions of a pro-Trump mob amid a shift in legislative power sharpened the focus on the oversized roles Facebook Inc.
and other tech companies play in the country’s social fabric and economy.
“January 6th ought to shape the future of tech as we know it,” Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at Tuft University’s The Fletcher School, told MarketWatch. “The only way in which social media doesn’t continue to be weaponized to undermine democracy is by re-thinking this critical piece [Section 230] that gave rise to the web as it is today and is the root of many of its evils. This puts the future of social-media regulation front and center of the Big Tech agenda.”
He’s not alone in thinking that. “What happened with Wednesday’s riot proves that [laws] built for the web need to be addressed,” Chris Carter, chief executive of cloud company Approyo, told MarketWatch. “The fact that Facebook finally banned Trump proves that Section 230 needs to be modified. Facebook acknowledged it is a publisher of content.”
Bipartisan support was already ripe for changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which spares social-media sites from being held liable for the content posted by their users. While Republicans insist there is a bias against conservative values, Democrats counter that social media doesn’t go far enough to tamp down on hate speech and misinformation.
Facebook and Twitter initially allowed Trump to post a video Wednesday professing his “love” for “very special” supporters after they stormed the Capitol — shortly after he urged them at a rally to march to the Capitol and “fight.” The two platforms later removed the video, before eventually suspending the president’s accounts — Twitter for 12 hours, Facebook for at least 13 days.
The riots “clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden,” Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a public Facebook post Thursday morning announcing the suspension.
For weeks, Trump beseeched his followers via social media to strongly protest the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.
Read more: Facebook and Shopify boot Trump following Capitol siege
As virtual megaphones for opinions across the political spectrum, Facebook, Twitter and others are media outlets on steroids, reaching billions of people. But those companies have eluded any responsibility because of Section 230.
This is likely to change, Carter and others say, after Wednesday’s abortive insurrection — especially as Democrats assume control of both the House and Senate. “Facebook and Twitter share culpability,” Dan Wang, associate professor of management at Columbia University’s Business School, where he teaches tech strategy, told MarketWatch.
Bruce Reed, Biden’s deputy chief of staff, has called for changes. Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut have each sponsored bills to reform Section 230. In the House, Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., have vowed to reintroduce a bill this year that would hold companies liable if their algorithms amplify extremist content.
On the antitrust front, the Senate’s shift to blue “changes now in the eyes of the Street, with the risk of business model scrutiny from tech giants Amazon
and Facebook now in a brighter spotlight, which adds more risk to the overall tech sector, in our opinion,” Dan Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, said in a note Wednesday.
During his campaign, Biden contended that tech giants have “not only abused their power, but misled the American people, damaged our democracy and evaded any form of responsibility.”
Indeed, Biden’s posture toward tech are in line with those of Trump, whose administration put into motion the antitrust actions that should only gain steam this year and beyond.
“It was already headed in that direction. It was one of the few areas of agreement between Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren,” Columbia’s Wang said.
Though difficult to change, antitrust regulation gains more heft with Democrats assuming leadership of Senate committees. Antitrust experts anticipate higher profiles from the likes of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minn., who has repeatedly said it’s time to overhaul antitrust laws for the digital age, and Sens. Warren and Blumenthal, who advocate breaking up Google, Facebook and Amazon.
“Each of the cases is very different — FB, Google, Apple and Amazon — and it is hard to predict where each will settle, but we should expect to see more transparency and accountability,” Vasant Dhar, a professor at the Stern School of Business and the Center for Data Science at New York University, told MarketWatch. “Data will receive more attention, as will digital auctions/marketplaces, and bilateral deals for ‘shelf space’ like the Google-Apple relationship.”
Case in point: Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, who is in line to become the new chair of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, is author of the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act, a comprehensive federal privacy framework she introduced last year.
“It is important we take this crisis to learn and develop more visionary policy that makes technology a tool for democracy and not a weapon for undermining it,” Chakravorti said.