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Is a Big Tech Overhaul Just Around the Corner?

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The leaders of Google, Facebook and Twitter testified on Thursday before a House committee in their first appearances on Capitol Hill since the start of the Biden administration. As expected, sparks flew.

The hearing was centered on questions of how to regulate disinformation online, although lawmakers also voiced concerns about the public-health effects of social media and the borderline-monopolistic practices of the largest tech companies.

On the subject of disinformation, Democratic legislators scolded the executives for the role their platforms played in spreading false claims about election fraud before the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter, admitted that his company had been partly responsible for helping to circulate disinformation and plans for the Capitol attack. “But you also have to take into consideration the broader ecosystem,” he added. Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg, the top executives at Google and Facebook, avoided answering the question directly.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle returned often to the possibility of jettisoning or overhauling Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that for 25 years has granted immunity to tech companies for any harm caused by speech that’s hosted on their platforms.

These Big Tech companies are among the wealthiest in the world, and their lobbying power in Washington is immense. Besides, there are major partisan differences over how Section 230 ought to be changed, if at all. But lawmakers and experts increasingly agree that the tide is turning in favor of comprehensive internet regulation, and that would most likely include some adjustments to Section 230.

To get a sense of where things stand, I caught up by phone with Jonathan Peters, a professor of media law at the University of Georgia, who closely follows Big Tech regulation. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.

In her introductory remarks at the hearing today, Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois said, “Self-regulation has come to the end of its road.” What does she mean when she talks about an era of “self-regulation” on the internet? And how was that allowed to take hold?

The background of this hearing is that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, and big parent companies like Google, have come to have an enormous amount of power over the public discourse. And the platforms routinely conduct worldwide private speech regulation, through enforcement of their content rules and their community guidelines, deciding what may be posted, when to honor any request to remove content and how to display and prioritize content using algorithms.

Another way of putting it is that they are developing a de facto free-expression jurisprudence, against the background of the platforms’ business and legal interest and their self-professed democratic values. That has proved extremely difficult in practice.

The internet exists on a layered architecture of privately owned websites, servers and routers. And the ethos of the web, going back to its early days, has been one governed by cyber-libertarianism: this theory that by design this is supposed to be a relaxed regulatory environment.

What these hearings are trying to explore is the question, as you mentioned: Have we reached the end of that self-regulatory road, where the government ought to have a greater role than historically it has had in this space?

With all of that in mind, is antitrust legislation from Congress likely? How does President Biden’s arrival in the Oval Office change the prospects?

It’s interesting: If you look at what Biden has said as a candidate and what Biden has done as president, they’re a little bit different. As a candidate, Biden said he would favor revoking Section 230. He does not have even the Democratic votes to go through with a full revocation of Section 230, although an amendment might be possible. I think he’s facing the political reality that that is going to be a harder sell than he had initially thought.

In terms of whether broad antitrust legislation might pass this Congress, it does seem possible. Antitrust issues in the social media space have generated a lot more interest in the last couple of years than they have in the last 15 or 20 combined. If I could put that in just a little bit of historical context for you: 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of a monumental dissenting opinion in a Supreme Court case called Abrams v. United States. That was a case in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes really gave rise to our modern First Amendment, and the enduring concept of the value in a market of free trade in ideas.

With the rise of social media, our free-speech landscape today looks exceedingly different than it did when Holmes wrote those words. He was warning of the dangers of the government’s ability to censor critics or other disfavored speakers, whereas now the entities best able to restrict our speech are nongovernmental internet and web platforms.

So, many traditional First Amendment principles don’t map easily onto our reconstructed speech landscape. And I think the central concern at the heart of these antitrust cases is the power that is at the heart of what these companies do. It’s not that they produce widgets; they play a significant role, every day, in public discourse on matters of public interest.

Have the events of Jan. 6 and the entire experience of the 2020 election — which was riddled with false information about elections and voting — affected the likelihood of change? Did it really turn up the urgency in a meaningful way around web regulation?

I would say that it did. And it also clarified the differences, in terms of why the Democrats believe that reform is necessary and why the Republicans believe that it is. There is a growing consensus that we need more regulation to ensure the openness and usefulness of the web, but Democrats and Republicans disagree on why.

Democrats generally would argue that the platforms allow too much harmful user content to be hosted and spread — the kind of misinformation and disinformation we saw around the 2020 election, some of which of course contributed to or caused the Capitol insurrection. I would say that Democrats are also concerned with bullying, harassment and threats; hate speech; criminal activity that occurs on social media platforms; and the presence of dangerous organizations like terrorist groups or violently graphic content, and the effect those might have.

Republicans, by contrast, have sounded some of those same concerns. But they have focused a lot more on their concern that platforms censor conservative viewpoints — that the platforms are engaging in viewpoint discrimination. I’m not convinced that there is evidence of that, but that claim was made more loudly after President Trump was deplatformed by several of these major social media companies. I think it gave them another arrow in their quiver to try to advance that rhetorical argument that they had been making before the Capitol attack.

From Opinion

On an average day in the United States, more than 100 people are killed by guns. Most Americans want Congress to do something about this crisis, but for years, their representatives have offered them only political theater.

Why? It’s not for lack of understanding of the problem, the cause of which is actually quite simple: The United States has a staggering number of guns. Over 393 million, to be precise, which is more than one per person and about 46 percent of all civilian-owned firearms in the world. As researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have put it, “more guns = more homicide” and “more guns = more suicide.”

But when it comes to understanding the causes of America’s political inertia on the issue, the lines of thought become a little more tangled. Some of them are easy to follow: There’s the line about the Senate, of course, which gives large states that favor gun regulation the same number of representatives as small states that don’t. There’s also the line about the National Rifle Association, which some gun control proponents have cast — arguably incorrectly — as the sine qua non of our national deadlock.

But there may be a psychological thread, too. Research has found that after a mass shooting, people who don’t own guns tend to identify the general availability of guns as the culprit. Gun owners, on the other hand, are more likely to blame other factors, such as popular culture or parenting.

Americans who support gun regulations also don’t prioritize the issue at the polls as much as Americans who oppose them, so gun rights advocates tend to win out. Or, in the words of Robert Gebelhoff of The Washington Post, “Gun reform doesn’t happen because Americans don’t want it enough.”

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Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.



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In Washington, Policy Revolves Around Joe Manchin. He Likes It That Way.

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WASHINGTON — If Democrats eliminate the filibuster, there is one senator who would have an outsized impact in the 50-50 chamber on issues that could reshape the nation’s future: infrastructure, immigration, gun laws and voting rights. That senator is Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

There is also a senator whose opposition to eliminating the filibuster is a significant reason it may never happen. That senator, too, is Mr. Manchin.

“He should want to get rid of the filibuster because he suddenly becomes the most powerful person in this place — he’s the 50th vote on everything,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, sketching out the argument.

Mr. Manchin, however, does not see it that way. To the exasperation of Democrats, delight of Republicans and bewilderment of politicians who can’t understand why he wouldn’t want to wield more power, Mr. Manchin, a former governor of the state, isn’t budging.

“Sixty votes,” he said in an interview last week in his office, referring to the threshold required to advance most legislation, adding that he would not consider suspending the filibuster for certain bills, as some of his colleagues have floated: “You’re either committed or not.”

But with 18 people dead after two mass shootings within a week, a worsening migrant challenge on the border and Republicans trying to restrict voting in almost every state where they hold power, liberals believe this moment cries out for a different sort of commitment. At a time when they have full control of Congress and are confronting overlapping crises, many Democrats feel a moral and political imperative to act, process be damned.

That puts Mr. Manchin, 73, at the center of the most important policy debates in Washington — and has set the stage for a collision between a party eager to use its majorities to pass sweeping legislation and a political throwback determined to restore bipartisanship to a chamber that’s as polarized as the country.

Mr. Manchin believes that ending the legislative filibuster would effectively destroy the Senate. He recalled his predecessor, Robert C. Byrd, telling him that the chamber had been designed to force consensus.

Mr. Manchin has expressed willingness to support a “talking filibuster,” in which lawmakers have to actually hold the floor, perhaps for many hours, to block a vote. But he has not yielded on getting rid of it altogether and on an array of issues, including voting rights and gun control, his admonition is less about any particular policy end and more about making sure the legislation has support from both parties.

More broadly, Mr. Manchin’s resistance to ending the filibuster has ripened fundamental questions about which version of Congress would be more dysfunctional: a body stymied by gridlock or one that can pass legislation only by scrapping longstanding guidelines so it can push through party-line votes?

“You can’t make the place work if nothing significant is getting passed,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a leading progressive from California.

Mr. Manchin worries that the short-term benefit of ditching the filibuster would backfire for Democrats over the long term.

“I’m concerned about the House pushing an agenda that would be hard for us to maintain the majority,” Mr. Manchin said about the progressive legislation that House Democrats are stacking up at the Senate door. As for pressure from the left, he said, tauntingly: “What are they going to do, they going to go into West Virginia and campaign against me? Please, that would help me more than anything.”

To a growing number of his Democratic colleagues — and not just liberals — it’s naïve to keep putting hope over history, and believe, as Mr. Manchin said about gun legislation, that Republicans may say, “Listen, it’s time for us to do the reasonable, sensible thing.”

Of course, few in a Senate that depends on Mr. Manchin for a 50th vote will say outright that their colleague is indulging in fantasy.

“Joe’s focus, I believe, is bipartisanship, and I agree with the starting point,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, before lowering the boom: “They weren’t going to give us a single vote,” he said about the stimulus bill.

A former high school quarterback who friends say still relishes being at the center of the action, Mr. Manchin is something of a unicorn in today’s Congress. As a pro-coal and anti-abortion Democrat, he reflects a less-homogenized era when regionalism was as significant as partisanship and senators were more individual actors than predictable votes for their caucus.

Twice elected governor before claiming Mr. Byrd’s seat, he’s the only lawmaker standing in the way of an all-Republican congressional delegation in West Virginia, a state that former President Donald J. Trump carried by nearly 40 points last year. And he is an unlikely majority-maker of the Democratic Senate.

“We really are the big tent,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, before knowingly adding: “Now it’s a lot of work when you have a big tent, right? But that’s the way we have a majority.”

While out of step with his national party on some issues, and written off by parts of the left as little better than a Republican, his politics are more complex, even confounding, than they appear at first glance.

He provided the deciding vote on two of the biggest liberal priorities of this era — blocking repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017 and on passage of the nearly $2 trillion stimulus bill this month — while also twice voting to convict an impeached president wildly popular in his home state.

And while he may admire Mr. Byrd’s dedication to Senate tradition, Mr. Manchin has not emulated his predecessor by leveraging his power to focus relentlessly on steering spending projects back to West Virginia.

When Mr. Manchin was holding out on a single amendment that was delaying passage of the stimulus bill, White House aides were perplexed because his price for supporting the measure was not additional money for his impoverished home state. His main request, West Wing officials said, was to pare back spending and consider Republican input that could have made the bill appear more moderate.

Mr. Manchin said President Biden warned him in a phone call that the progressive left in the House might balk if the bill were significantly trimmed. “I said, ‘Mr. President, all we’re trying to do is put some guard rails on this,’” he recalled.

He was less happy about Vice President Kamala Harris’s effort to nudge him on the legislation by making an appearance on a television affiliate in West Virginia to promote the bill without forewarning him. The clip went viral and, Mr. Manchin said, prompted cleanup conversations with Mr. Biden and the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain.

As for any pressure that he may feel on the filibuster, Mr. Manchin said he had reminded Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, of how essential he was to providing Democrats a majority.

He said he had told Mr. Schumer, “I know one thing, Chuck, you wouldn’t have this problem at all if I wasn’t here.”

He is not the only impediment to the sort of expansive liberal agenda preferred by many congressional Democrats or even the only one still defending the filibuster. Other Senate Democrats, including Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, also share his reluctance.

Yet none are as eager as Mr. Manchin to restore a bygone day of collegiality. And perhaps, more to the point, none are as happy as him to talk about the need to do so as he navigates representing a once-heavily Democratic state that had been shifting to the G.O.P. even before Mr. Trump arrived on the scene.

He crossed the aisle last year to endorse his closest Republican ally, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and is already co-hosting bipartisan lunches with her. He is plotting the post-pandemic restoration of his pizza-and-beer parties on the boat he calls home while in Washington. (It’s called “Almost Heaven,” the opening lyric to John Denver’s ode to West Virginia.)

Although some of his colleagues relish the ideologically-charged prime-time cable news programs, Mr. Manchin prefers another Washington institution that also flourished in less-polarized times: the Sunday morning show.

In the fashion of many former governors who grow exasperated with Washington’s glacial pace, at times he can barely contain his impatience. He’s repeatedly mused about leaving the Senate and trying to reclaim his old job in Charleston.

But those who know Mr. Manchin well believe he likes the attention that he receives in the capital, the same as he did as a signal-caller in Farmington, W.V., where he grew up near Nick Saban, the legendary football coach at the University of Alabama and a lifelong friend of Mr. Manchin.

“You’re in the hot seat when you’re a quarterback, but it’s pretty satisfying when you make progress,” said Nick Casey, a Manchin ally and former chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party. Mr. Casey said the senator, who sustained an injury that cut short his playing days, was “the greatest QB who never got to start at West Virginia University — just ask him.”

Steve Williams, the mayor of Huntington, W.V., who served with Mr. Manchin in the state legislature, said: “This is the closest he has been to how he could be as governor, actually driving the agenda, pulling people together.’’

It’s the last part that most animates the senator. Happily bantering with reporters as he positions himself as a lonely, if well-covered, voice for comity, he shifts questions from policy to process.

“Why don’t you ask people when was the last time they took time to talk to some of the people on this side?” Mr. Manchin told a CNN reporter this week. “Try to convince them, or work with them. Have you had dinner with them? Have you had a lunch with them? Have you had a cup of coffee with them? Try something.”

A number of anti-filibuster Senate Democrats, though, are more focused on what Mr. Manchin’s support of the “talking filibuster” could portend.

“I think that gives us a lot of room for discussion,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, adopting a glass-is-half-full perspective.

What does seem clear is that Mr. Manchin is not going to switch parties.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen, although we’d welcome him with open arms,” said Ms. Collins, who has tried in the past to persuade her friend to join Republicans.

It’s not difficult to see why Mr. Manchin remains in his forefathers’ party. A Catholic of Italian descent, he sought John F. Kennedy’s desk when he arrived in the Senate, displays a picture of the slain president in his office lobby and can recall hearing that Massachusetts accent in his kitchen when Kennedy’s brothers came to his parents’ house during the West Virginia primary in 1960.

“Joe reminds me a lot of the old conservative Democrats in Texas,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “They were born Democrats. They’re going to die Democrats.”

As for the filibuster, Mr. Coons, who was sworn in alongside Mr. Manchin in 2010, said liberals shouldn’t get their hopes up.

Recalling a conversation with somebody who knows Mr. Manchin well, Mr. Coons said this person told him: “If the ghost of Robert Byrd came back to life and said the future of West Virginia itself is on the line he might … think about it.”



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C.D.C. Funding Gun Violence Research For First Time in Decades

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That was the argument he used to help persuade Congress to appropriate money for gun violence research in 2019. The research itself was never banned outright, and in 2013, weeks after the massacre that killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Barack Obama directed the C.D.C. to reconsider funding studies on gun violence.

The agency commissioned a report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council outlining priorities, but little changed. By 2019, after Democrats reclaimed the House, liberal organizations like MoveOn.org were petitioning Congress to repeal the Dickey Amendment. Nearly every House Democrat signed on.

But Dr. Rosenberg argued it should remain intact, to “provide cover for Republicans and gun-loving Democrats who can put money into the science and tell their constituents, ‘This is not money for gun control.’ ”

Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chaired the House subcommittee that oversees the C.D.C.’s budget at the time, said she put $50 million into the appropriations bill that year, but the Senate, controlled by Republicans, eliminated it. The two chambers agreed on $25 million as a compromise, but she said she hoped to double the funding this year.

Dr. Naik-Mathuria, the Houston trauma surgeon, said she would like to see Washington address the problem of gun violence as a matter of injury prevention, not politics. She began researching methods to reduce gun violence about six years ago, she said, after seeing “kids come in dead because they shot themselves in the head when they found a gun at home.”

Her current study is aimed at determining risk factors for gun violence for children and adults, and her past work has led to some changes in medical practice, she said.

Pediatricians in Texas, she said, are hesitant to talk about gun safety out of concern that “it would anger parents or become political.” So she and her group made a broader safety video that tucked in messages about gun safety — like keeping guns locked and stored — with tips like how to keep children away from poison.



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Who Are Gavin Newsom’s Enemies?

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There’s still time for a lot to change: If the organizers of the recall effort reach the signature threshold, the vote to recall Mr. Newsom and to choose his successor — both would be done on a single ballot — probably wouldn’t occur until near the end of the year.

That recall effort is being led by Orrin Heatlie, a conservative and a former sergeant in the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department, who as recently as last year shared anti-vaccination and anti-L.G.B.T.Q. views online. But the endeavor has the backing of a number of deep-pocketed political action committees, most of them right-leaning.

Randy Economy, a political consultant and talk-radio host, serves as the lead adviser to Recall Gavin Newsom, the group organizing the effort. He said the governor’s behavior and demeanor had made the recall necessary. “It’s because of Gavin Newsom himself, and the way he conducts himself every day since he’s become governor,” Mr. Economy said in an interview. “It’s all been more about his image and self-aggrandizing, as opposed to fixing the problems.”

Mr. Newsom’s approval rating isn’t nearly as low as Gov. Gray Davis’s was in 2003, when voters ousted him in a recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger, running as a moderate Republican, was the beneficiary of that effort, winning the recall election and going on to serve as governor for more than seven years.

California politics are different — and decidedly more Democratic — than they were 18 years ago. Democrats now have a 2-to-1 advantage in terms of voter registration across the state. Just because there is a Republican-led effort does not mean that a Republican will be the one to ultimately benefit. Mr. Economy, who volunteered in 2016 for Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign but has also worked for Democrats in the past, insisted that his team’s goal was not partisan in nature.

“Our job is not to pick the next governor; our job is to make sure that this governor’s recalled and removed from office,” he said.

The state is light on prominent (let alone popular) G.O.P. politicians, and some ambitious Democrats already appear ready to run through the open door. All of which points to a possible irony: Even if it were to become only the second successful recall effort in California history, the push — led by conservative interests — could ultimately lift up another Democrat, possibly one to the left of Mr. Newsom.



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