Members of the U.S. Senate are renewing efforts to crack down on perceived threats posed by big tech and social media companies. But the political divide in Congress might make that difficult, if not impossible.
Over the course of two hearings this week, policymakers grilled experts on the harms that dominant platforms might cause, how legislation can address the control that companies such as Amazon and Apple have on businesses operating on their platforms, and the use of social media to spread misinformation and online bullying.
A group of 12 U.S. senators also introduced a bill focused on the national security threats that might be posed by foreign-owned technology products such as TikTok, a popular social media platform owned by Chinese technology company ByteDance. Though it does not specifically mention a TikTok ban, the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act would empower the U.S. government to stop potential threats posed by such platforms.
Policymakers failed to pass multiple bipartisan bills introduced in 2022 to reform existing antitrust laws to address competition concerns with tech companies. Congress has also struggled to reach a consensus on addressing the social media platform immunity granted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and on protecting U.S. consumer data with a comprehensive federal data privacy law. Consensus is not something experts believe is likely to happen this year in a politically divided Congress.
"When it comes to actual action, we have done nothing in this Congress," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust and Consumer Rights during the subcommittee's hearing on big tech's dominance Tuesday. "We have done nothing in terms of setting standards when it comes to tech."
Despite a grim outlook for consensus, bipartisan efforts are underway to tackle big tech issues.
Antitrust reform bills continue to meet resistance
Klobuchar spoke of the need to advance two antitrust reform bills, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) and the Open App Markets Act (OAMA). Neither received a Senate floor vote last year.
The AICOA, of which Klobuchar is a sponsor, is bipartisan legislation targeted at large online platforms with at least 50 million monthly active users. It would make the ability of tech companies to unfairly preference their own products illegal.
Meanwhile, the bipartisan OAMA, sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), would impose rules on app stores with more than 50 million users -- in other words, those operated by Apple and Google -- prohibiting measures such as requiring app developers to use in-app payment systems operated by those companies.
AICOA and OAMA are the "best route to immediate improvements" in the application of antitrust law, said Fiona Scott Morton, an economics professor at the Yale School of Management and a witness during Tuesday's hearing. She said the modern interpretation and application of U.S. antitrust laws have failed to preserve competition among today's digital platforms.
"Relying on entrenched monopolists to innovate and create competition is foolhardy and unsupported by economic learning," she said.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said finding a way to rein in big tech's influence remains "one of the most pressing public policy concerns of our time," but expressed concern about some of the broad language in AICOA and OAMA.
"Some of the bills that have been introduced to solve one problem or another simply replace a corporate tyrant with a government tyrant," Lee said during the hearing. "They would replace a lack of competition with an excess of government micromanagement by bureaucrats, trading one form of dysfunction for another."
Daniel Francis -- an assistant law professor at New York University, former senior counsel to the Federal Trade Commission and a witness during the hearing -- also expressed concern about the bills. He said investing in existing antitrust laws will help enhance competition among digital marketplaces.
"Our digital markets are not competitive enough," Francis said. "Antitrust enforcement needs more money" and "updated statutes so we can stop anticompetitive acquisitions and exclusionary practices in tech and other markets."
Senators set sights on Section 230
During a hearing on platform accountability Wednesday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he'd previously listened to the testimony of mothers who had lost their children to suicide after being "mercilessly bullied" online.
"In addition to tragically losing children, these mothers had something else in common," he said. "They couldn't hold the online platform that played a role in their child's death accountable. The reason? Section 230."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
Section 230 is a provision that grants online platforms immunity from liability for content posted on their platforms by third parties. It's currently under scrutiny by the U.S. Supreme Court in Gonzalez v. Google LLC and Twitter Inc. v. Taamneh. It's also widely debated by policymakers.
Blumenthal, chair of the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law that held Wednesday's hearing, said he is encouraged by the bipartisan consensus on the need to tackle platform accountability. He said future legislation on platform accountability and reforming Section 230 needs to consider platform design and algorithms that recommend content.
"Here's a message to big tech: Reform is coming," Blumenthal said.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) described Section 230 as not only outdated and outmoded, but "unrecognizable from what Congress wrote in the 1990s."
"I hope the United States Supreme Court will do something about this, but whatever the case may be there, it is incumbent upon Congress to act," he said during the hearing.
New Senate bill focuses on national security threats
Popular social media platform TikTok took center stage in a bipartisan bill introduced Tuesday aimed at addressing threats potentially posed by foreign technology platforms.
Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) introduced the RESTRICT Act empowering the Department of Commerce to "review, prevent, and mitigate information communications and technology transactions that pose undue risk to our national security."
"Today, the threat that everyone is talking about is TikTok, and how it could enable surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party, or facilitate the spread of malign influence campaigns in the U.S.," Warner said in a statement. "Before TikTok, however, it was Huawei and ZTE, which threatened our nation's telecommunications networks."
The RESTRICT Act would empower the U.S. government to quickly assess and act on threats that foreign-owned technologies pose to national security, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said in the statement.
"While many of these foreign-owned technology products and social media platforms like TikTok are extremely popular, we also know these products can pose a grave danger to Wisconsin's users and threaten our national security," Baldwin said.
Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget Editorial, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.