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Big Tech Braces for Republican Investigations Over Censorship

Nov. 9, 2022, 5:12 PM

In September, Ohio Representative Jim Jordan and 34 of his Republican colleagues sent a letter to Meta Platforms Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg. In it they outlined their concerns that Meta suppressed material that would have been politically damaging to Joe Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign. “This letter serves as a formal request to preserve all existing and future records and materials,” they wrote.

The congressmen had no power to make Zuckerberg heed the request, and he didn’t respond. But Jordan was preparing for big changes in the near future. A Republican takeover of the House would likely elevate him to Judiciary Committee chair, a position that would allow him to back up his demands with the threat of a subpoena. Jordan was a key participant in the Benghazi investigation, a sprawling House probe that was bipartisan but used by some Republicans for political purposes, a goal at which Jordan proved particularly adept.

Those plans remain on hold after a surprisingly strong Democratic performance in the midterm elections on Nov. 8, which left the balance of Congress in doubt as of midday Wednesday. The odds are still in favor of Republicans securing a slim majority, which is all they’d need to control House committees.

The goal of a GOP inquiry into Big Tech would not be to bring in CEOs for embarrassing hearings, says a senior aide involved in planning, who asked not to be named when speaking about future committee activity. Rather it would go after documents and compel the testimony of decision-makers at companies such as Meta and Alphabet Inc.’s Google that conservatives don’t like. One person who’s advising tech companies says that they’re taking potential for GOP-led probes seriously and that the staff involved would be ready to run effective and substantive investigations.

Such an effort would seek to bring transparency to the operations of secretive tech companies, the GOP aide says, and could be used to inform legislation. Republicans have already circulated draft bills that focus on hot-button tech issues, such as content moderation and cybersecurity. But regardless of whether they eke out a slight majority, the chances of substantial legislation are low, given the need for cross-party cooperation at time of intense partisan hostility.

In such a polarized environment, even bills on which the parties ostensibly agree have been unlikely to become law. For example, a House committee voted overwhelmingly to advance a bipartisan privacy bill sponsored by Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers and her Democratic counterpart, New Jersey Representative Frank Pallone. But the bill stopped there, and Republicans on the committee—including some who voted for it—complained that they shouldn’t be going along with such a bill while Democrats controlled the House.

One Republican member of the committee, who asked not to be named, says the party should have waited until it was in the majority to negotiate the details from a position of strength. Two Republicans on the committee say that the bill needs to be redrafted before being reintroduced next year. They also want to include provisions that would likely cost it the necessary Democratic support, such as preempting state laws and eliminating the option for individuals to sue companies for violating their privacy.

There are other areas where the parties could work together, such as a desire to strengthen protections for children online or to crack down on Chinese companies like TikTok owner ByteDance Ltd. But Republicans’ most frequent complaint centers on social media’s alleged bias against right-leaning users. This is the “conservative rage boilingat Big Tech,” as Jordan put it earlier this year, and if given the chance Republicans will use all of their tools to investigate. Some GOP draft bills would chip away at Section 230, the part of a 1996 law that protects online platforms from liability for user content. And Republicans will investigate the allegations. On Nov. 4, Jordan released a reportpreviewing what his Judiciary Committee would want to ask the FBI. It includes discussion of alleged coordination between Meta and the FBI before the 2020 election. The name “Hunter Biden” appears 1,416 times in the 1,050-page document.

The committee would likely also look into decisions by Meta, Twitter Inc. and YouTube to suspend former President Donald Trump’s accounts after the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol, as well as the Biden administration’s cooperation with social media companies to identify and downplay Covid-19 misinformation.

There’s little chance that Democrats would cooperate with any of these probes, even though the Judiciary Committee has conducted bipartisan investigations of Big Tech before. The panel’s antitrust subcommittee, led by Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline and Colorado Republican Ken Buck, previously spent 16 months gathering evidence of the anticompetitive practices of Amazon.com, Apple, Google and Meta—which informed a package of bills that’s advanced further in this Congress than any other tech regulation. Jordan opposed the effort. Buck, unsure if he’ll lead a GOP-controlled antitrust subcommittee, says he recognizes the “need to do a better job in convincing people that antitrust is part of the overall package that we need to use.”

Those bills wouldn’t get a hearing next year under Jordan’s leadership. But he’s signaled that he does plan to investigate one of Biden’s top antitrust enforcers, Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan. In a letter to Khan, Jordan wrote that under her leadership, the FTC has acted in a way that “disrupts free markets and is inconsistent with fundamental American freedoms.” He’s asked her to preserve documents, too.

To contact the author of this story:
Anna Edgerton in Washington at aedgerton@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Joshua Brustein at jbrustein@bloomberg.net

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.