The days of unqualified praise from Washington are over for the country’s biggest tech companies, whose size and power are increasingly drawing attacks from both the left and the right.
Democrats are condemning Facebook for allowing “fake news” and Russia-linked ads during the election, while conservatives accuse Google of silencing right-leaning viewpoints. President Donald Trump routinely accuses Amazon of dodging taxes, and right-leaning news organizations like Fox News and Breitbart have begun mocking Silicon Valley leaders as power-hungry and out of touch.
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It’s a sharp change of fortune for the tech sector, which long drew bipartisan praise as an engine of economic growth and innovation — and saw politicians deferring to the industry on issues like digital encryption and how the internet should operate. Now, with Democrats talking tough about applying antitrust scrutiny to “Big Tech” and Republicans condemning internet firms for their snap judgments about who gets to say what online, tech is encountering unaccustomed hostility from the political class — and tighter regulation no longer seems a far-fetched scenario.
“The free ride Silicon Valley has benefited from is finally coming to an end, and I see that on both sides of the political spectrum,” said John Simpson, privacy project director at Washington-based Consumer Watchdog.
Simpson’s group has long criticized the country’s biggest tech companies, saying they abuse consumers on everything from privacy to pricing. But across Washington, liberals and conservatives are beginning to find common ground in the view that the industry’s power over American life has grown too vast and unchecked — and the new dynamic is upending traditional ideological alignments.
Tech’s new critics include Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has begun sounding the alarm that Google has grown into “the most powerful company in the history of the world.”
Carlson recently aired an interview with Matt Stoller, a member of an antitrust team that lost its jobs at the left-leaning think tank New America after praising a $2.7 billion fine that the European Commission levied against Google this summer for stifling competition. The New York Times reported that Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, a New America funder, had complained about the statement posted by Stoller’s team — a turn of events that Carlson described as a sign of Google’s “terrifying” power.
Stoller, a former aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), later praised Carlson as “one of the few on TV willing to talk about it.”
“Everything is confusing!” Stoller tweeted.
Washington’s souring relationship with tech marks a sharp break from the Obama years, when politicians of all stripes regularly basked in the glory of the nation’s tech giants. Obama appeared in town halls with CEOs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and personally recruited what he called “top talent from Google, from Facebook, from all the top tech companies” to serve in his White House tech squad, the U.S. Digital Service. Obama and Democrats weren’t alone in this; Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) celebrated Google in his 2015 election-season memoir as “the dream employer of the newly graduated.”
As the internet industry flourished over the last two decades, each political party saw a reflection of its own image. Democrats reveled in Silicon Valley’s espousal of liberal values, while Republicans saw evidence that the free market in America was alive and well.
But in a sign of how much the temperature has changed in the nation’s capital, Google spent last week on the defensive after New York Times columnist Nick Kristof accused the search giant of enabling criminal behavior by trying to kill bipartisan legislation aimed at combating online sex trafficking. Kristof’s column won an immediate endorsement from GOP Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who called it a “must-read” on Twitter.
Facebook also found itself in the crosshairs last week over its admission that it had sold $150,000 worth of 2016 election ads to Russian-linked accounts. The disclosure, which Facebook shared with federal investigators, stirred up longstanding Democratic complaints that the company had turned a blind eye to so-called fake news that took aim, directly and indirectly, at Hillary Clinton.
At times, the new scrutiny of tech is creating strange bedfellows.
Steve Bannon, while serving as Trump’s chief strategist, reportedly floated the idea of treating Facebook and Google as public utilities, similar to the heavily regulated telephone industry — a departure from the traditional conservative focus on deregulation. Meanwhile, Breitbart News, the online publication Bannon now heads, often goes after tech companies for heavy-handedness and elitism. “Tech” is listed as a section of that site just after “Big Government,” “Big Journalism” and “Big Hollywood.” A recent story on Breitbart mocked a Google employee for importing Maine lobsters to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert.
Top Democrats, too, are talking about reining in tech’s reach. The party’s congressional leadership in July put out a new economic agenda stating that antitrust regulators should factor in companies’ handling of users’ personal data — the lifeblood of internet firms — when deciding which mergers to approve. That document echoed aspects of a speech that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) delivered last year arguing that companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are trying to “snuff out competition.“
The danger for the industry is that the U.S. will start to look a lot more like Europe, where regulators are much tougher on American tech firms, subjecting them to investigations and fines over everything from their tax avoidance strategies to their handling of so-called hate speech.
”The services this industry provides have become a part of our social and economic fabric, and by and large we think we’re providing an important, valuable, positive contribution,” said Ed Black, president of the Washington-based Computer & Communications Industry Association, which represents many of the big tech companies.
He acknowledged “that disruption, while it can be empowering, can also be unsettling and destabilizing,” but cautioned against “simplistic analysis of the problems and simplistic solutions are too easily being put forward.”
Amazon’s growing footprint has also brought it new political scrutiny. After the FTC signed off on the company’s $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the ranking member of the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee, questioned the thoroughness of the agency’s review and said she would probe the agency’s “quick decision” approving the deal.
And the online retailer is a frequent target of Trump, who regularly attacks the company as a tax avoider. “Amazon is doing great damage to tax paying retailers,” Trump tweeted last month. “Towns, cities and states throughout the U.S. are being hurt — many jobs being lost!” The criticism appears to be tied up with Trump’s disdain for what he calls “The Amazon Washington Post.” (He frequently refers to the newspaper as owned by the online retailer, but Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns it as a private investment.)
While the large internet firms have long described themselves as mere publishing platforms, they are increasingly making decisions on what content should be taken down or left up on their sites — opening them to blowback from the right and left.
Twitter for years took a hands-off approach to pro-ISIS tweets, a practice that attracted criticism from all sides. (The company now says it more aggressively shuts down terrorism-related accounts.) Facebook, for its part, sparked a conservative firestorm last year over a report that it was demoting right-leaning items from its trending news feed. More recently, the social network has angered people of all ideological stripes by permitting the posting of neo-Nazi content amid the violence at August’s white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Despite the controversies, tech is not without resources in Washington. Democrats, for one thing, rely on Silicon Valley as a considerable source of campaign funding, and Republicans are still reluctant to dictate how corporations should behave. The industry has for years been beefing up its lobbying operations in Washington and is spending more than ever before on influencing decision-makers.
But the tech industry’s self-image as a unique force for good has taken a hit, and it’s finding itself treated more and more like any other American industry.
Stoller, the former New America antitrust fellow, said he shares with conservatives like Carlson a drive to understand how companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are reinventing the American economy. “It touches this deep suspicion all of us have of concentrated power,” Stoller told POLITICO.