Finally we have reached topart consensus on Big Tech, yay everyone! At least that’s the line the press echoes ad nauseum. “Facebook Whistleblower Reignites Bipartisan Support for Curbing Big Tech,” the Financial Times trumpeted last week after Frances Haugen’s testimony in the Senate on Facebook. “Lawmakers Send Big Tech a Two-Part Antitrust Message,” Newsweek wrote a day later. For more than a year, but especially after last week’s U.S. Senate hearing, the media has increasingly hinted that Democrats and Republicans are setting aside their long-standing disagreements over technology policy.
But beyond their triumphant headlines, many of these articles (often clumsily) note that “consensus” is merely a view that some some kind of regulation for Big Tech is needed. This is where the idea of ”two-part consensus” crumbles, and where the danger in this term lies.
It’s true that in the last few years, U.S. lawmakers have become far more outspoken about Silicon Valley technology giants, their products and services, and their market practices. Still just agree with that something must be done, and only if it is about as superficial as bipartisan consensus becomes. Elected representatives of both parties still have disagreements about what it is for something, why it should happen, and what the problems are in the first place. All of these factors shape both the proposed rules in Congress and the way forward to make them a reality.
On top of this, the media, which separates national politics from the technology legislation process, only threatens to repeat the problems of recent decades, where notions of technology as apolitical are conducive to regulators and societies ignoring dangers right in front of them. This exaggerated rhetoric skews the analysis of the difficult path ahead to real, material regulation – and how many threats to democracy (and democratic technology legislation) lie from within.
For decades, liberal democracies from the United States to France to Australia consistently highlighted the Internet as a free, secure, and resilient golden democracy child. In particular, U.S. leaders, from Bill Clinton’s Jell-O-to-a-wall speech in 2000 to the State Department’s so-called Internet Freedom Agenda for 2010, praised the power of the Internet to overthrow authoritarianism worldwide. This logic went alone, democratic governments could enable the internet to be as pro-democratic as possible.
The reason for calls to regulate Big Tech today is no small change. While it is tempting to see this shift as one-sided, some sections of the media often forget that tech is not a monolith and that many different incidents have led to many different calls for regulation: Equifax data breaches, Cambridge Analytica confidentiality scandal, Russian ransomware attacks, Covid misinformation, misinformation campaigns aimed at black voters, use of racist and sexist algorithms, abuse of police use of surveillance technology and so on and so forth. Not all legislators care about these issues equally or not at all.
Data breaches and ransomware appear to be two areas with the greatest potential for consensus legislation; members of Congress are unlikely to stand up to believe their belief in lowering the cybersecurity bar and making their constituents vulnerable to attack. Earlier this year, after several, significantly harmful ransomware attacks launched from within Russia, members of both parties condemned the behavior and highlighted how Congress and the White House could respond by sanctioning Russian actors and investing more in domestic security. The House and Senate held ransomware hearings in July, building on important civil society work to drive a two-pronged response to the threat.