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posted: 3/23/2019 6:15 AM

Backlash to Big Tech surges across the political spectrum

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WASHINGTON -- Democrats have so far been loudest on the campaign trail and in Washington in their calls to crack down on Silicon Valley. But the mounting criticism this week from President Donald Trump and other Republicans over the companies' alleged bias against conservatives shows that the backlash to Big Tech is surging across the political spectrum.

In one of Trump's most explicit criticisms of the technology industry, the president at a news conference this week accused Twitter of "big discrimination" against Republicans -- and also accused leaders of Facebook and Google of colluding with Democrats.

"There is collusion with respect to that, because something has to be going on," he said. "When you get the back scene, back office statements made by executives of the various companies and you see the level of, in many cases hatred, they have for a certain group of people that happen to be in power -- that happen to have won the election -- you say, 'that's really unfair.' Something's happening with those groups of folks that are running Facebook and Google and Twitter and I do think we have to get to the bottom of it."

Charges of suppressing conservative voices seem to be shaping Republicans' approach to lashing Big Tech: Also this week, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., filed a headline-grabbing $250 million lawsuit against Twitter -- claiming the social network permitted users to attack him because of a political agenda. Though his case has been labeled "doomed to fail" by many legal experts, the case provides other Republicans openings to air their grievances.

The fracas -- combined with recent calls from prominent Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren to break up the technology companies -- highlights how Silicon Valley's spectacular fall from grace has left the industry with few allies on either side of the aisle.

But even as consensus builds in Washington to rein in Big Tech's power, it's not clear if the political parties will ever agree on how they want to bring down the hammer on the companies.

Democrats are increasingly raising the prospect of antitrust action to address their concerns with the technology companies -- and there's growing momentum on the left to give the Federal Trade Commission more authorities to investigate potential violations. It's not just Warren's calls on the campaign trail: Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., published an op-ed in The New York Times yesterday calling on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook for violating antitrust laws.

Republicans haven't gone as far. While Trump did say last year his administration was looking at antitrust action against Facebook, Google and Amazon, his recently confirmed attorney general, William Barr, said he wants to "find out more about the [market] dynamic" that allowed Silicon Valley titans to take shape under antitrust enforcers. And when it comes to the FTC, the Trump administration has favored deregulation and may be wary of giving a regulator more power or resource to take on such issues.

The pressure from both political parties highlights how difficult it might be for Silicon Valley companies to please political leaders in both parties. Sometimes the steps the companies take to put out one fire result in new headaches.

Trump's most recent accusations emerged soon after White House social media director Dan Scavino said on Facebook that the social network was "stopping" him from replying to comments followers left on his Facebook page. He accused the company of silencing him.

However, Facebook told my colleague Tony Romm in a statement yesterday that the incident is one intended to stop automated accounts that blocks "repetitive automated activity" from one account in a short time frame. "These limits can have the unintended consequence of temporarily preventing real people like Dan Scavino from engaging in such activity, but lift in an hour or two, which is what happened in this case," a spokesman said, apologizing for the mishap.

Facebook has expanded such efforts to crackdown on automated activity under intense political pressure, especially from Democrats who were concerned about the role bots played in spreading misinformation during the 2016 election.

One way Republicans may try to crack down on alleged anti-conservative bias is by tinkering with a decades-old law that grants tech companies broad legal immunity for content that users post on their platform. Donald Trump Jr. wrote in an op-ed earlier this week that it's "high-time" for conservatives to heed recent suggestions from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., to add a "viewpoint neutrality" provision to companies protected by the Section 230 provision to ensure conservative voices aren't silenced online.

Some Democrats have previously raised the idea of changes to address the spread of hate speech on social media -- which has taken on new relevance in the wake of the New Zealand shooting.

But others, such as Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the tech industry's toughest critics in Congress, warned against making any update for fear it would enable politicians to unfairly silence critics.

"Donald Trump, Devin Nunes and Ted Cruz are proving exactly why Section 230 is so essential -- without protections, all online media would face an onslaught of bad-faith lawsuits and pressure campaigns from the powerful in an effort to silence their critics. The fact is, social media companies should be doing more to clean up their platforms, not less. Calls for government regulation of online speech and the business practices of private corporations run counter to everything conservatives claim to believe."