Senators shout down tech CEOs, but little will probably change

The Hill likes to go viral grilling tech executives. But it’s hard to know if some of them would even really like to see change

Eric Garcia
Wednesday 31 January 2024 21:40 GMT
Ted Cruz and Mark Zuckerberg engage in heated exchange

At this point, it’s pretty fair to say that Big Tech is about as loved on Capitol Hill as the tobacco companies were in previous decades. Conservatives have taken to hating on the tech world — except for some executives within it, like Elon Musk — for suppressing “free speech,” which is shorthand for suppressing conservative speech.

Liberals, who previously relied on tech companies for large sums of campaign cash, have also become increasingly wary of tech companies for promoting misinformation which they believe contributed to Donald Trump’s victory, the January 6 insurrection, and Covid vaccine conspiracies.

Such bipartisan dislike should lead to the ability to pass some kind of legislation. Instead, most legislation today stalled. Executives for Meta, Twitter-turned-X, Discord and TikTok testified on Capitol Hill — but doing so has become an semi-regular event. Lawmakers now regularly thrash tech executives but do almost nothing to effect change, as my colleague Katie Hawkinson recently reported.

Republicans made the most out of their time during the hearing. Senator Lindsey Graham came stumbling out of the gate, telling Meta executive Mark Zuckerberg that he had “blood on your hands,” which elicited applause.

Graham is partially right that a big reason why families cannot publicly sue tech companies on behalf of their loved ones is probably because of lobbying. The four companies spent more than $28m in lobbying last year, according to summaries from the Center for Responsive Politics. That means that the best that lawmakers can do is to preen and grandstand about the lack of legislative action.

Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri — who, despite being a Stanford and Yale graduate, has fashioned himself as a populist warrior who opposes the tech industry — elicited an uproarious applause when he said that Meta was a “disaster” for teenagers.

Meanwhile, the tech executives gave such evasive answers to lawmakers’ question that they did something previously considered impossible even by some Republicans — they made Texas Senator Ted Cruz come off as likable. When he asked Zuckerberg, “What the hell were you thinking?” in a question concerning a label that asked people about to view child sex abuse images whether they wanted to get resources or continue viewing, there was general assent.

But for all the applause from families who are understandably heartbroken about the loss of their loved ones this week, the realities of the Senate mean little will get done. Senator John Cornyn, a former judge and Texas attorney general, told me shortly after the first half of the hearing that the Senate has worked on multiple bills. He blamed Senator Chuck Schumer for them not passing.

“Senator Schumer needs to put them on the floor,” he said. The fact that outside the hearing room, Cornyn reverted to partisan bickering when away from the pressure of families spells grim news. The truth is that the Senate will likely keep hammering tech because it politically benefits the congressional members who do. Having a solution might not even be in such Senators’ best interests.

Democrats, as is their wont, sang from mostly the same hymnal as their Republican colleagues, albeit in a softer tone. X executive Linda Yaccarino, whose job has been to act as a sieve filter for Musk’s outlandish tweets, did come out in support of the Kids Online Safety Act, which Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut sponsored.

During his line of questioning, Blumenthal asked Zuckerberg if he believed he had a constitutional right to lie to Congress. Later on, Blumenthal told me that it was a good sign that half of the Senate sponsored his bill and contradicted Cornyn by saying Schumer has committed to getting votes on it.

“So I think we will see action on it before before the summer,” he told me. But, he added, the action that comes after the hearing matters far more.

“There’s no basis to rely on them to in effect grade their own homework,” he said. “We need to impose legal safeguards and guardrails so that parents and kids have tools to disconnect from these blackbox algorithms that drive toxic content at them and impose a duty of care and responsibility so they can be held accountable.”

Of course, there seems to be little appetite for doing the difficult leg work. And ironically, many of the elected officials, particularly Republicans, went viral on X, one of the very platforms they were railing against. Essentially, the incentives to take actual action are too perverse and too much money flows to Capitol Hill to do anything to actually stop tech companies.

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