WASHINGTON (TND) — A new Republican majority in the House is already setting their sights on Big Tech and social media companies with plans for hearings and investigations into their decisions on content moderation in a change from the antitrust focus during the last Congress.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Republican lawmakers now chairing the lower chamber’s committees have previewed the kinds of investigations Big Tech companies could face for months.
Social media companies have become frequent targets of GOP lawmakers who claim they are silencing conservative voices and violating rights to free speech. The release of several batches of the so-called “Twitter Files” have ramped up concerns about suppression of speech and the government’s involvement after some emails from White House aides and the FBI communicating about moderation with Twitter were released.
On Tuesday, the House approved a select committee to investigate the “weaponization” of the federal government in a party-line vote. The subcommittee will fall under the House Judiciary, chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who will also lead the panel.
"Americans are sick and tired of it and what we want, we don't want to go after anyone,” Jordan said on the House floor. “We just want it to stop, and we want to respect the First Amendment to the Constitution that the greatest country in the world has.
“That's what this committee is all about. And that's what we're going to focus on. That's what we're going to do."
Democrats all voted against the select committee over issues with the panel’s vast reach and that it will serve political interests of Republicans and former President Donald Trump, who is facing a Department of Justice investigation over his alleged mishandling of classified documents and has had some social media accounts suspended in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
“The Judiciary Committee has serious work to do, but rather than trying to solve problems for the American people, this new subcommittee will expend untold time and money undermining our nation’s law enforcement agencies, our justice system and our intelligence community—all for a political stunt catering to the extremist wing of the Republican party,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y, and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
Social media and tech companies have long been issues both parties have wanted to regulate differently but have been unable to find a compromise on exactly what the regulation will look like. The result has been several hearings with high-profile companies and executives where lawmakers try to make points aligned with their party’s stance without new compromises or legislation.
“They are the political Chupacabra,” said Jessica Melugin, director of the Center for Technology & Innovation at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
The split Congress will likely have different priorities when it comes to regulating the tech sector, as the Republican-controlled House narrows in on censorship and free speech issues while a Democratic-led Senate has focused on finding a deal on antitrust concerns.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, along with Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Chuck Grassley sponsored an antitrust bill in the last Congress and said work would continue its passage in the 118th Congress that was sworn in last week.
Even if enough Republican senators approve the bill, there may not be a path for it in the House where GOP lawmakers have taken a more skeptical stance toward forcing large tech companies to split up or stopping mergers.
Political gridlock is also likely to continue over Section 230, a law that shields companies from liability over what users post. It’s another issue where both parties have interest in changing regulation but have vastly different approaches that has resulted in nothing being passed.
Republicans have called for reforms to Section 230 over alleged left-leaning biases with the company and the removal of posts from conservative accounts, while Democrats have complained about a lack of oversight with the spread of false or misleading information online.
“Republicans are mad at it because it allows these companies to take things down, and Democrats are mad at it because it allows these companies to keep things up,” Melugin said. “When you have dead opposite criticisms from that, it is not going to grow a bipartisan solution, that's not how that works.”
Instead, the GOP-led House will lead a series of hearings and investigations to a variety of issues connected to Big Tech companies.
Among them is communications between the federal government and tech companies. In the last Congress, Jordan sent letters to several of the largest companies asking for more information about contact with the Biden administration on moderating content.
Republicans have promised to make that a priority as a part of their probe into the “weaponization” of government, but it could be challenging for the committee to investigate and frame the issue in a nonpartisan fashion.
“What every American of every political inclination would benefit from is some calm, measured legislating, some kind of really balanced oversight, where it's not about scoring political points or ‘gotchas,’” Melugin said. “It's really about ‘what are the systemic challenges with this new technology and where are the boundaries for where governments should be intervening?’”