Social Media Unchecked: Why US Congress Fails to Act

A heated Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week highlighted the failure of tech giants to protect children online and the inability of the US Congress to pass meaningful legislation to rein in social media platforms.

Experts on the frontlines of tech regulation cited three factors hindering progress:

  • Lobbying and Partisanship: Despite facing criticism on Capitol Hill, Congress shows no progress in regulating tech giants.
  • Privacy & Free Speech: Questions about the role of tech and the balance between privacy and free speech remain contentious.
  • Tech Accountability: Lack of consensus on who is responsible for the negative impacts of technology.

Tech giants like Meta, Google, and Microsoft have become “bipartisan punching bags” on Capitol Hill, yet US lawmakers have been all talk and no action.

Meanwhile, consumer advocates, whistleblowers, and state attorneys general have amassed a mountain of evidence suggesting that tech giants may be harming user health or monopolizing key sectors of the economy.

Lobbying and Influence US Congress

Tech companies have spent heavily in Washington to influence policy, especially since the early 2010s.

They use a variety of methods, including campaign contributions to members of Congress, hiring lobbyists, and tapping into networks of think tanks and advocacy groups. Their strategies resemble those used by other industries like tobacco and fossil fuels.

Tech companies leverage lobbying, a practice inherent to democracy, but their vast wealth grants them a significant advantage.

Microsoft’s support for child safety laws, potentially harming Google, shows how companies can weaponize differences for competitive advantage.

This phenomenon is called “strategic credit” by tech analyst Ben Thompson.

Congressional Gridlock

Despite pressure from outside groups, conflicting priorities and incentives among lawmakers themselves make legislation difficult.

Internal GOP strife, especially at the committee level, has led to gridlock on social media legislation in the House. Many lawmakers are unwilling to let their colleagues claim credit for progress on an issue. Ego also plays a major role.

Congressional leaders like Chuck Schumer and Mike Johnson play a critical role in setting the legislative agenda.

Schumer has said he will only allow a floor vote in the Senate on bills that have 60 votes to pass, which can be a hurdle for bills that don’t have broad support. Child online safety legislation is a priority for Schumer, while Johnson has not yet offered a response.

Consequential Policy Differences

Difficulties in regulating access to legal online content in America stem from disagreements about what policies are constitutional.

While often driven by public demand, seemingly easy solutions like content moderation are fraught with challenges in practice.

Tech companies and consumer groups urge Congress to pass a national privacy law regulating consumer data use. This is seen as a crucial first step, but enacting social media regulations remains difficult due to the complex political and legal environment.

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