In his likely-to-be fruitless quest to boost bipartisanship in Congress, President Joe Biden is expected to launch some rhetoric in the direction of Big Tech during this evening's State of the Union address.
It feels like Facebook has been vilified plenty in the last four years, by both the left and the right for different reasons. Lately it's been more about Twitter, with Elon Musk trying to convince Fox News and 4Chan that he's saved the platform from the woke Democrat mob, all while the left is decrying the lack of content moderation going on since Musk took over, with hate speech proliferating on the platform. (Can both sides at least agree that child porn is bad?)
Government efforts to investigate or break apart Alphabet/Google have been unsuccessful so far, but two weeks ago we learned that the Department of Justice is renewing its efforts. The DoJ believes Google has "corrupted legitimate competition in the ad tech industry" because of its monopoly over internet search, and its combined advertising arm, saying the two parts of the company need to be broken up.
Now, word has it via the Washington Post and Bay Area News Group that Biden plans to cast some negative light on Big Tech during his second State of the Union address, hoping perhaps to bring both sides of the aisle together over a common enemy. Topics are likely to include data privacy — something over which both Google and Facebook have paid billions in fines over the last decade — ad monopolies, hate speech, election integrity, and maybe even Section 230.
The latter issue, which has galvanized Democrats in recent years, is the bit of nearly 30-year-old legislation that continues to be used to shield social media companies from liability for the content posted on their platforms, but this is a bipartisan loser since Republicans want less content moderation because they claim conservative voices have been stifled or silenced — something that Elon Musk has helped to stoke in recent months with his Twitter Files non-bombshell.
One Democratic aide familiar with the State of the Union speech preparations told the Post that, because of its politicization, bringing up Section 230 would be a "tactical mistake" on Biden's part, if he does it.
In his first State of the Union address as president last March, Biden paid only the briefest lip service to cracking down on Big Tech. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen was invited to attend the speech as a guest of Jill Biden, and the president mentioned her, but focused that mention on social media's harms to children.
"As Frances Haugen, who is here tonight with us, has shown, we must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit," Biden said, adding that Congress should act to "ban targeted advertising to children; [and] demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children."
Tonight's remarks will likely go deeper — especially, perhaps, on the topics of hate speech and misinformation on social media, with a real-world casualty of those, Paul Pelosi, sitting in a viewing box as a guest of the First Lady.
Getting any legislation through a divided Congress, even with general bipartisan support for some kind of crackdown, looks to be heavy lift. Per Bay Area News Group, Big Tech spent $95 million last year on lobbying in Washington, with Meta/Facebook alone spending $19 million, and Alphabet spending $13 million. By comparison, Twitter spent only $1.3 million, according to OpenSecrets.
"Across our society we’ve seen a broad-based 'techlash' where there’s widespread perception that internet companies are too big, too profitable, too powerful and too unregulated,” says Santa Clara University law school professor and tech-law expert Eric Goldman, speaking to Bay Area News Group. “Both political parties see payoff from fueling the techlash." But, Goldman says, Congress still reflects two very different views about the actual harms being done.
Biden offered a likely outline of what he'll be saying tonight in an op-ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal last month. In it, he mentioned the harms to children that he touched on in last year's speech, but he also mentioned problems like "cyberstalking, child sexual exploitation, nonconsensual pornography, and sales of dangerous drugs," and how "Big Tech companies have elbowed mom-and-pop businesses out from their platforms, [and] disadvantaged them."
"To keep Americans on their platforms, Big Tech companies often use users’ personal data to direct them toward extreme and polarizing content that is likely to keep them logged on and clicking," Biden said, and in a nod to the Pelosi attack as well as events like the mass shooting in Buffalo, he added, "All too often, tragic violence has been linked to toxic online echo chambers."
The op-ed calls for multi-pronged legislation that would set "clear limits on how companies can collect, use and share highly personal data," hold companies responsible "for the content they spread and the algorithms they use," and "bring more competition back to the tech sector."
"We need bipartisan action from Congress to hold Big Tech accountable," Biden concluded. "We’ve heard a lot of talk about creating committees. It’s time to walk the walk and get something done."
Expect something similar to come out of his mouth tonight.
Top image: Workers install security fencing around the U.S. Capitol on February 05, 2023 in Washington, DC. The fence is being installed as part of enhanced security measures ahead of President Joe Biden's State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)