politics

Anti-Facebook agitators see their moment under Biden

Democrats widely accuse Facebook leaders of permitting misinformation to appease Trump and his Republican allies. Biden’s campaign representatives have also lambasted Facebook for choosing not to remove Trump’s misleading claims from their pages and for broadly halting political advertising in the days immediately before and after the Nov. 3 election.

“It’s just not a great business strategy to piss off the incoming president,” said Sally Hubbard, the director of enforcement strategy at the Open Markets Institute, which has advocated for antitrust enforcement against Facebook, Google and other big tech firms.

She and other tech critics are putting pressure on Biden to take a different approach than past administrations, and they already have several allies advising the transition as it prepares to take over next month. Gene Kimmelman of Public Knowledge and Sarah Miller of the American Economic Liberties Project, both regular critics of the tech industry’s market power, are assisting Biden with the Justice and Treasury department transitions, respectively.

Other transition advisers have called for tougher action against the big tech companies. Bill Baer, a Brookings Institution scholar advising the FTC review team, said last month that the government needs to take bolder antitrust enforcement. And where enforcement falls short, it may be necessary for Congress to regulate, he said.

“Markets are not always self-correcting and that case-by-case enforcement may not be the best, most efficient, and most prompt way of addressing” problems, Baer said, speaking in a personal capacity to the American Bar Association.

While Biden has welcomed both Facebook associates and detractors into his transition team, he’ll face pressure from allies in Congress and progressive advocacy groups to take an aggressive stance toward the company. At a time when Facebook is exposed on multiple fronts, that could mean real trouble for the world’s largest social media network.

The now-president-elect has called for the internet industry’s sacred legal liability protections to be revoked, specifically citing Facebook’s handling of election-related misinformation. He turned heads in January when he said bluntly, “I’ve never been a fan of Facebook,” a company whose digital reach helped propel the Obama-Biden ticket to the White House in past elections.

Facebook’s many critics in Washington are expecting that to translate into policy. “Joe Biden’s made clear that he’s going to put working people first, not wealthy corporations like Facebook,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who as chair of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee has proposed a revamp of U.S. antitrust laws, said in a statement.

“Not only am I confident that the Biden administration will not only take action to hold Facebook accountable, I believe we’re on track to implement the antitrust subcommittee’s recommendations for restoring competition in the digital marketplace,” continued Cicilline, who headlined an antitrust fundraiser for Biden during the campaign.

Cicilline is far from alone in Congress in his animosity toward Facebook. The tone toward tech has shifted in Washington since Biden left public office four years ago. The Obama administration regularly tapped Silicon Valley’s brain trust for fresh ideas and personnel, and it left companies relatively unregulated during a period of meteoric growth. President Barack Obama even conducted a town hall at Facebook headquarters in 2011.

Any executive action or legislation is likely to address industry issues at large rather than Facebook specifically — taking a different and potentially more successful tack than the Trump administration, which was thwarted in many of the grievances it pursued against specific companies

“The checks and balances in the system even make it hard for the White House to punish an individual company, as we saw in the Trump administration with the White House’s repeated — and largely failed — efforts to use policy tools against individual companies like Amazon and TikTok for political gain,” said Matt Perault, a former Facebook public policy director who now leads Duke University’s Center on Science and Technology Policy.

“But it’s certainly possible that skepticism about Facebook from the Biden team could result in a greater likelihood of antitrust scrutiny by the Justice Department and the FTC,” he continued. “And it’s possible that a Biden White House could use their bully pulpit to try to force changes that they can’t achieve through executive action or legislation.”

Facebook’s critics say time has revealed the underbelly of the company’s highly lucrative business model: offering its social network to users free of charge and then harvesting their personal data to target them with content and advertising. They said it gives oxygen to misinformation and conspiracy theories, and creates echo chambers that can radicalize certain users.

Facebook has taken steps to label misinformation on its platform or, in some instances, remove it entirely. In the weeks since the election, the company has been particularly vigilant about labeling election-related misinformation, including Trump’s false claims of election rigging, though critics note it still allows that content to reach users.

But in Washington, its critics increasingly have an audience across the political spectrum. Animus toward Facebook is a point of unity among centrist and progressive Democrats, who have already been in conflict over other policies the incoming administration plans to pursue.

“What better firm to go after than Facebook because everybody knows who they are, they’re big, they appear as a monopoly?” said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which opposes the FTC lawsuit against Facebook. “They’re going to face challenges in a Biden administration that is going to have to show its bonafides to the left that, ‘Hey, we’re doing something.’”

Republicans, too, have gripes about Facebook’s handling of political speech, with some saying its lack of meaningful competition gives it the leverage to censor users’ political views. After the FTC and state attorneys general announced their Facebook lawsuits this month, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle expressed support.

Trump himself, while a prolific poster on social media, has gone on tirades against Facebook and Twitter for fact-checking those posts. He took his anger against the companies out with an executive order instructing the FTC and Federal Communications Commission to look at limiting the scope of Section 230, the 1996 law that protects internet companies from legal liability for user-generated content. The president has also repeatedly called on Congress to repeal the law, going so far as to veto a major defense spending bill on Wednesday because lawmakers had failed to accede to his demands.

But bipartisan frustration with tech has yet to mean lawmakers will set aside partisan differences. Both sides have been frustrated with how Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube police political content, for instance, but Democrats want more moderation and Republicans have called for less.

“I’m interested to see whether the Biden administration might be influenced by those within the Democratic Party calling for more censorship of conservative viewpoints,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), chair of the Senate antitrust subcommittee, said in a statement.

Even with such divisions, the general animosity toward Facebook could help the anti-Facebook advocates to gain traction with the new administration. And they’re pushing their agenda hard ahead of the inauguration.

“The Biden-Harris administration can and should do much more beyond the scope of litigation, which often takes years to resolve,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of social justice group Color of Change. “This is only the beginning of a long road to break up Big Tech’s concentration of corporate power.”

Ultimately, the way Biden fills out key Cabinet posts, including the heads of the Justice Department’s antitrust division and the FTC, will indicate how his administration plans to handle questions about competition in the tech industry. The Biden transition team, which declined to comment for this story, appears so far to be walking a middle line on appointments — and getting blowback.

Biden has come under fire from progressive groups, which formed a coalition called the Revolving Door Project to oppose industry-affiliated nominees, for selecting former Facebook public policy director Louisa Terrell as the White House director of legislative affairs and Jessica Hertz, a former associate general counsel at Facebook, as the general counsel for the transition.

Others with ties to Facebook have also been named to top posts. Jeff Zients, an Obama administration veteran and co-chair of Biden’s transition, has been named the White House’s Covid-19 coordinator. He previously served on Facebook’s board of directors, but reportedly left amid disagreements with leadership.

And three Facebook employees were added to Biden’s agency review teams in the weeks since they were first announced. Facebook said those employees, which include a public policy executive and associate general counsel, continue to work at the company while volunteering for the transition.

That could give Facebook and its army of lobbyists natural entry points as they look to smooth over relations with the new administration. Facebook has built a massive lobbying machine in Washington, spending $16.7 million last year— nearly double what it spent in 2016. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment for this story or discuss Facebook’s outreach to the incoming Biden administration.

In an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted that the company has offered to support Biden’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Zuckerberg also told Congress in October that Facebook is open to greater transparency requirements for social media companies, along with changes to the 1996 tech liability law that both Trump and Biden have attacked.



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