Last October, on the day whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before her committee, Senator Amy Klobuchar gave a candid, if depressing, summation of the effect of all that DC spending: “We have not done a thing to update US competition, privacy & tech laws,” she tweeted. “Nothing. Zilch. Why? Because there are lobbyists around every single corner of the Capitol hired by tech.”
If you want to see the power of the lobbying effort, just look at the nomination of Gigi Sohn for the Federal Communications Commission. While unquestionably qualified, Sohn’s focus has been on empowering consumers. Naturally she had made enemies in businesses, particularly rapacious telecom companies known to fleece customers. Those interests have managed to block her confirmation for months. If she isn’t confirmed soon, a new congress might manage to kill her nomination outright. With Sohn’s nomination on hold, the commission is deadlocked with two Democrats and two Republicans.
Meanwhile, news reports claim that a multimillion-dollar effort from special interests—including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google–is targeting key states and vulnerable Democrats to withdraw support from Klobuchar’s reform bills. A bitter irony: The campaign has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook and Google ads to drive home its point.
We’ve come a long way from the days when tech entrepreneurs wanted to steer clear of DC. Yes, back then they were naive. They were arrogant to think they were somehow special and could build their businesses while ignoring the government. But their instinct to avoid the slime pit of American politics was admirable. Lawyering up and lobbying may not have totally solved their DC problem—the consistent bad behavior of those companies makes it likely that some sanctions will arise. But those sanctions won’t be as harsh or as effective as the lawmakers, regulators, and maybe even the public wished for. One longtime staffer on the Hill who I spoke with this week summed up the tech interests and their DC activities: “They’re just like everybody else.” It wasn’t a compliment.
Arguments about regulating the internet have been raging ever since the mid-1990s boom that made the net accessible to the masses. Well before tech companies spent millions on lobbying, the debates were pretty similar to the ones we suffer through now, especially when it comes to online speech. Case in point: Senator James Exon’s Communications Decency Act, a proposed amendment to the telecommunications act, which I wrote about in a 1995 Newsweek article. A pared-down version of the amendment found its way into the 1996 bill—which included the still-controversial Section 230.
The Exon amendment is very broad. It could hamper communication between adults–the essence of online activity–and might not even solve the problems that kids face. “It would be a mistake to drive us, in a moment of hysteria, to a solution that is unconstitutional, would stultify technology, and wouldn’t even fulfill its mission,” argues Jerry Berman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.