Washington - The Biden administration arrived in Washington with an ambitious agenda for taming Big Tech, which it portrayed as concentrating too much power in the hands of a few billionaires — the moguls of a new, digital Gilded Age.
Elon Musk's $44 billion deal to buy Twitter has put that critique into sharp relief, underscoring how badly Biden's tech agenda has stalled in the 15 months since taking the White House.
The world's richest person has bought one of its most influential social media platforms — and Washington's hands are largely tied.
Musk, notorious for flouting regulators and running afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission, will wield enormous discretion over thorny decisions about what content stays on and off the social network, and how the company handles the data privacy of its millions of users. By taking the company private, Musk will be subject to even less scrutiny than powerful executives of other publicly traded companies, such as Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Lawmakers now find themselves stymied, after failing for years to implement guardrails on social media companies that might force greater accountability of Musk. The deal does not present obvious antitrust conflicts, exposing the limits of Congress's recent focus on regulating the largest tech platforms.
“We've been asleep at the wheel,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat who represents Silicon Valley and has advocated greater regulation of the tech industry. “It's unsettling that a change in ownership can create that kind of change in public discourse.”
Activists, academics and lawmakers who once pinned their hopes on a more assertive federal government now are increasingly looking abroad — mainly to Europe — in the hopes that foreign regulators might have the clout to curb Silicon Valley's worst abuses. European policymakers appeared eager to take up that mantle, responding with a warning for Musk.
“Be it cars or social media, any company operating in Europe needs to comply with our rules — regardless of their shareholding,” tweeted Thierry Breton, the European commissioner for the internal market. “Mr. Musk knows this well. He is familiar with European rules on automotive, and will quickly adapt to the Digital Services Act.”
The rhetoric across the Atlantic stood in contrast to the White House, where press secretary Jen Psaki declined to comment on the deal. She said that President Joe Biden has “long been concerned about the power of large social media platforms.”
Musk has sought to portray himself as a “free speech” absolutist, saying in a Tuesday tweet that he is against “censorship that goes far beyond the law.”
“If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect,” he wrote.
But despite the majority of Americans supporting greater regulation of tech companies, Washington has not passed comprehensive legislation on the tech industry in decades.
The Biden administration and Democrats promised an unprecedented regulatory assault on Silicon Valley when they regained power in Washington in 2021. Motivated by the role they said Facebook, Twitter and other social networks played in spreading falsehoods during the 2020 election and inflaming extremism, they proposed changes to an Internet liability law known as Section 230, privacy protections and new competition rules.
Biden named prominent tech industry critics to key antitrust enforcement roles. Following revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen later last year, they expanded their vision - promising children's safety legislation and greater transparency around the black box algorithms that power major tech platforms.
Yet as the midterm elections approach, many Democrats are fearful their party will lose control of the House and possibly the Senate — closing their window to pass significant tech legislation.
The Washington Post