When it comes to antitrust and technology, there’s a trust deficit on Capitol Hill, even as pressure to act continues to mount. And Senate Democrats trust Speaker McCarthy with one thing: to protect the monopolies of American manufacturing.
“I think the sentiment is there, but we’ve had a hard time getting Republicans to support legislation in this area,” said Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Democrat.
House Republicans may see common ground with Biden’s new hard-line approach to technology, but this is no Kumbaya Congress — and the rest of Biden’s vision for the State of the Union, at least at first glance, has been portrayed by Republicans as a laundry list of reasons to never work with Biden, regardless of their common technological enemies. “What we’ve seen tonight is Joe Biden talking about unity in the same breath, followed by sharp attacks from Republicans,” said Republican Congresswoman Kat Cammack of Florida. “To me, it just shows that he’s not serious about doing anything for the American people.”
After rejecting the bulk of the president’s agenda, Cammack admits there was one bright spot. She calls Biden’s tough message to Silicon Valley “encouraging.”
“We have a really big problem when it comes to our personal data being collected without a warrant, sold without our permission, and it’s time to put people’s data and privacy back in their hands,” Cammack said. “So I was encouraged to hear it, but it’s a long way between now and then.”
There is certainly a long way to go, but members of the House of Representatives are only given short two-year terms, and the sprint to 2024 has already begun. Pomp and circumstance was the dress code last night, even if some got a different memo. But now the focus is shifting to legislative activity — and, especially in the lead-up to a presidential election, that means throwing bombs and pointing fingers.
Democrats and Republicans in recent years have failed to put up a fence against Silicon Valley’s donor class, despite both parties continuing to condemn the same tech sector that Washington politicians have refused to regulate while Americans’ data is mined, handed over to law enforcement, or sold to other third parties. Hot air and deflated rhetoric are not options for this 118thousand Congress, Cammack reports.
“Honestly, I don’t think we have a choice,” Cammack says.
“We have a divided Congress, and House Republicans are serious about data protection for consumers, for Americans, and I think Democrats are, too. The trick is to craft a bill that not only survives Congress, but also avoids a veto if it reaches its desk. So this will be where the rubber meets the road.”
Technical policy is different from other pressing issues. They are both bipartisan—each has a crush on Big Tech—but they are also stubbornly stuck in the rigid partisan patterns of Washington. That’s why sharp rhetoric goes so far, even when mistrust seems endless. So the details are often the devil.
“These are difficult conversations. We all value privacy. We all want to protect our children,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, speaking on behalf of many of his fellow Republicans. “But we also like free enterprise. We like innovation. I always believe that it is better to destroy barriers for competitors than to regulate existing businessmen, so to speak.”
Senators tend to be slightly older than their counterparts in the House of Representatives (an average of 7.4 years older, to be exact, according to Pew Research). In recent years, octogenarian members of the House of Representatives have proven to be the stuff of Silicon Valley jokes, but times are changing — and with the speed of the Senate.
All five Republicans who won Senate seats in November are bullish on Big Tech. While it’s unclear how quickly — or how successfully — he will succeed in his efforts to educate his anti-regulation Republican elders, Silicon Valley critics in Congress say Biden has been smart to focus on protecting children’s private data. It’s a message that resonates far and wide, even on Speaker McCarthy’s Capitol Hill.
“But this challenge of targeting our kids with certain messages using technology to collect data and persuade or exploit their habits in this day and age is really troubling,” Kramer says. “I think a lot of us traditionalists need to wrestle a little bit with our basic individualism, with some defensiveness.”