Warren, Graham partner in proposing new agency to regulate tech giants

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are teaming up on legislation to create a new agency that would have the power to regulate tech giants.

The bipartisan Digital Consumer Protection Commission Act, unveiled Thursday, would create an agency charged with oversight of Meta, Google, Amazon and other large tech companies and seek to promote industry competition and consumer privacy online.

The commission would work alongside the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ), the agencies that currently operate as antitrust enforcers, according to the bill.

The legislation would also set regulations in place requiring “dominant platforms” to be licensed and allow for licenses to be removed for repeated anticompetitive and anti-consumer conduct violations.

The bill is the latest effort from Congress to rein in the power of tech giants.

More from The Hill

Last year, two bipartisan antitrust reform bills advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee — the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Open App Markets Act — but failed to make it to the floor for a vote. Companion bills that advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee also failed to advance to a full floor vote. 

Warren and Graham’s proposal seeks to target tech regulation more broadly by creating a commission specifically tasked with oversight of the booming industry.

The legislation would also grant the new commission with oversight over how to respond to emerging risks, including from artificial intelligence (AI) — an area where lawmakers and regulators have been scrambling to understand and put rules in place.

“Enough is enough. It’s time to rein in Big Tech. And we can’t do it with a law that only nibbles around the edges of the problem,” the senators wrote in a joint op-ed published in The New York Times on Thursday. 

“Piecemeal efforts to stop abusive and dangerous practices have failed. Congress is too slow, it lacks the tech expertise, and the army of Big Tech lobbyists can pick off individual efforts easier than shooting fish in a barrel. Meaningful change — the change worth engaging every member of Congress to fight for — is structural,” they added. 

Lawmakers have long faced an uphill climb when pursuing tech reforms, with the industry launching massive lobbying campaigns targeting congressional legislation.

At the same time, Republicans leading the House have focused their tech agenda on content moderation battles rather than advancing bills aimed at reining in the market power of Big Tech.

For Warren, her proposal with Graham is the second time the progressive firebrand has recently joined forces with a colleague across the aisle. Last month, Warren joined Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) to put forward a bill that targets failed bank executives with harsher penalties.

Jordan, GOP-led panel take steps to hold Zuckerberg in contempt 

The GOP-led House Judiciary Committee is moving forward with plans to consider recommending that the House hold Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg in contempt of Congress.

GOP members of the panel have accused Meta of not cooperating with its investigation into the company’s content moderation practices.

The committee announced Tuesday that it is slated to consider its report recommending Congress hold Zuckerberg for contempt during a Thursday session.

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) launched an investigation in February into how tech companies communicate with the federal government. The vote Thursday comes after a series of hearings on the same topic from the House Judiciary Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.

A spokesperson for Meta said Tuesday that the company has sent more than 53,000 documents to the committee, a slight uptick from the more than 50,000 documents the company said it shared as of Monday.

"For many months, Meta has operated in good faith with this committee’s sweeping requests for information,” the Meta spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill. “We began sharing documents before the committee’s February subpoena and have continued to do so.”

“To date we have delivered over 53,000 pages of documents — both internal and external — and have made nearly a dozen current and former employees available to discuss external and internal matters, including some scheduled this very week,” the spokesperson said. “Meta will continue to comply, as we have thus far, with good faith requests from the committee."

Jordan subpoenaed executives from Meta, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft about their communications with the federal government starting in February. Since then, the weaponization subcommittee has held numerous hearings about the subject.

David Cicilline led the fight against Big Tech. Here’s what comes next.

The House is losing its top antitrust reform champion later this year when Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) resigns. 

The congressman announced last month that he will retire from Congress in June to take a role as president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, a community foundation and largest funder of nonprofit organizations in the state, ending his seven-term run in the House.

By reaching across the aisle, Cicilline led the House Judiciary Committee, as chair of the antitrust subcommittee, in advancing a series of bipartisan proposals to revamp antitrust laws in a way that targeted the nation’s largest tech companies.

Cicilline and his coalition of antitrust reform supporters said the rules on the books fail to address the modern day industry giants, namely Meta, Amazon, Google and Apple.

The proposals sought to address concerns critics said the tech platforms raised, such as boosting their own products and services over rival offerings, and to redefine what firms qualify as dominant companies based on market cap and user base numbers.

But his efforts were often met with opposition.

The companies have pushed back strongly on that assertion, with tech groups arguing that the proposals would force them to unwind services and features users enjoyed.

Cicilline and the bills' supporters said the bills would not have the effect, but failed to pass any of them. Despite the rare bipartisan support, most of the proposals failed to make it to President Biden’s desk in the last Congress. 

Lobbying during a House transition

The combination of hefty lobbying from tech giants and a flip in House control to GOP leaders means the antitrust proposals are seemingly at a standstill.

While a handful of congressional Republicans support taking antitrust action against Big Tech companies, GOP lawmakers as whole have focused their tech agenda on content moderation and censorship.

In an interview with The Hill, Cicilline said he is still hopeful there is still a path forward for the agenda he laid the groundwork for in the House. 

“There's still really strong bipartisan support for that whole package. We had the votes in the last Congress. My sense is we have the votes in this Congress, too. I think what will make it a little more challenging for the next couple of years is the Republican House leadership's opposition to these bills,” Cicilline told The Hill. 

In another blow to the antitrust reform push, House GOP leaders replaced Cicilline’s Republican counterpart in the fight, Rep. Ken Buck (Colo.), in the top spot on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee.

When they took control this year, Republicans placed Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a staunch libertarian, as subcommittee chair in yet another sign that they won’t take up the bills.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.)
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) gives remarks during an enrollment ceremony for The Respect for Marriage Act at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, December 8, 2022.

How Cicilline joined the antitrust fight

Cicilline was hesitant at first to take the reins as ranking member of the antitrust subcommittee in 2017. Rich Luchette, a longtime former senior adviser to Cicilline, said he even advised his boss against doing so. 

“I was thinking to myself, 'He's in leadership, he's gonna have his hands full with that, he should pick one lane. And what is antitrust anyways?' ” he said, referring to lawmaker's role as co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. 

“Fortunately, he did not listen to me,” Luchette added. 

For Cicilline, his reluctance was rooted in the fact that he had little experience with antitrust law. But upon advice from Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, he took the post. 

“He said, ‘Sometimes you should take a new assignment just because you're going to stretch your mind and learn something new,'" Cicilline said.

"And it turned out to be very good advice, because shortly after taking this role, the big Cambridge Analytica breach was revealed, and a lot of information about what was happening online and the focus really became the role of these technology platforms in not only our economy, but in our democracy,” he continued.

While Democrats were still in the minority, Cicilline started by learning more about the issues.

His tutorial on the issues turned into launching the investigation that led to the blockbuster 450-page report on digital marketplace competition — a process that included grilling the CEOs of the nation’s largest companies at committee hearing.

“The more I've learned about it over these years, the more urgent I believe action is. The more damaging, I think, allowing these technology companies that have monopoly power to continue to operate unchecked from any regulation and continue to grow their power and their market share is,” Cicilline said. 

How Cicilline built an antitrust reform coalition 

Although House GOP leaders aren’t showing interest in bringing the bills forward again, the Judiciary Committee’s markup in June 2021 brought together unlikely allies in the House. 

The proposals advanced out of the committee with support — and opposition — from both sides of the aisle, placing lawmakers like Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) on the same side promoting the bills and Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) together on the opposing side

Buck said that bipartisan nature was a key part of how he led the push. 

“I think that we need more of David Cicillines in Congress — people who have strong feelings about their issues, but who are also willing to work across the aisle,” Buck told The Hill. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) addresses reporters following the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, January 24, 2023.

Buck was a leading Republican voice advocating for the antitrust reform bills. Along with him, Democrats found unlikely allies in Gaetz and Rep. Lance Gooden (Texas) among the handful of Republicans supportive of the effort.

In the Senate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and other supporters found a GOP ally in Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Luchette said that bipartisan work was a cornerstone of how Cicilline approached his work in the House. 

“I could go on probably for hours telling you about the times that I worked for him and saw him working with people who are seen as right-wing ideologues, people who are on Fox News all the time, people who give no quarter to the Democratic Party, and he would work effectively with them on issues,” Luchette said. 

“At the end of the day, that's the way the system should work. It's not supposed to work with people just going to their corners and holding the line. You're supposed to be able to find common grounds and to the extent that they were able to do that, I think that was in large part because of the energy and effort that he poured into it,” Luchette added. 

The bills were the result of a 16-month investigation into market dominance in the digital sector, which ultimately led to a series of bipartisan proposals aimed at reforming antitrust laws to tackle concerns critics say are posed by Amazon, Meta, Google and Apple.

Pushback to proposals was immediate and substantial

Because tech giants have denied using anticompetitive practices, the companies and the industry groups that back them pushed back strongly on the proposals, shoveling millions into lobbying and expensive opposition ad campaigns. 

Much of that opposition was largely from groups like Chamber of Progress, NetChoice, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), which represent companies including Amazon, Google, Meta and Apple.

CCIA’s “Don’t Break What Works” campaign launched a series of ads targeting the proposals and arguing they would force companies to unwind services users enjoy or make companies charge users for previously free features. 

California Democrats, especially those who represent tech-heavy Bay Area districts, also pushed back on the proposals, arguing that they didn’t address the problems identified by the House investigation into digital marketplace competition in an effective way to serve the public.

Republicans fought hard against more antitrust regulation

Critical House Republicans, like Jordan, opposed the plans on the basis that the bills would give the Biden administration “more money.” 

To get Buck on board, Cicilline held a field hearing on competition issues in Buck’s home state of Colorado in 2020. 

The hearing featured executives from Tile, Sonos, Basecamp and the Boulder-based company PopSockets that testified over how tech giants were impacting their companies. 

“I wanted to demonstrate to him, even though he was the ranking member, that I respected his role in this work, and I also wanted him to hear from Colorado business folks about the impact of these platforms, on their businesses, business people, and, we just developed a very strong working relationship,” Cicilline said. 

Buck said after the hearing he became more interested and involved, and was able to develop a “trusting relationship” with Cicilline. 

“Which during this time frame is difficult. Obviously, David and I disagreed about the impeachment votes, and we disagreed about a lot of other very contentious issues,” Buck said. 

Cicilline served as an impeachment manager for former President Trump’s second impeachment. Buck voted along with the majority of his party against both impeachments of Trump. 

“But when it came to this, we both found common ground. And he was great if I went to my Republican colleagues and discussed a bill and they said, ‘Well, you know, you got to change this and one, two, and three,’ " he said.

"I would go to David and get those things changed and I would go back and get Republican support. So it really was a process where he was willing to compromise a great deal to get the Republican support that we needed to get the bills passed in the House,” Buck said. 

Cicilline said both lawmakers understood that the tech companies were trying to “desperately make this a partisan issue” and pit the two against each other. 

“And we resisted that at every turn despite their best efforts,” Cicilline said.

Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.)
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) is seen following the sixth ballot for Speaker on the second day of the 118th session of Congress on Wednesday, January 4, 2023.

What supporters accomplished — and hope to do next

Two of the more high profile proposals, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Open App Markets Act, didn’t get floor votes in the House or Senate and failed to be added to end of the year omnibus bills despite a push from the bill’s sponsors and outside supporters. 

The first bill aimed to limit dominant platforms from creating preferences for their own products and services on their platforms.

The second aimed to add regulations for dominant app stores. In the Senate, versions of the bills also advanced out of the Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support. 

Lawmakers did, however, successfully get a package of less controversial antitrust reform measures, also part of the proposals spawned from the House investigation, passed.

The package aimed to boost federal and state antitrust enforcers’ power to give them a better shot at taking on powerful tech firms.

“I think for sure when the Democrats take the House back, this will remain a priority and I expect these laws will also make it to the president’s desk,” Cicilline said, of the other antitrust proposals. 

Can Cicilline's legacy evolve into policy?

Democrats controlled the House, Senate and White House before the 2022 election, but the proposals failed to get floor votes in either chamber. 

“It can often take multiple terms of Congress to build sufficient support to pass legislation. So we look forward to continuing to monitor in the Congress and hope to see concrete changes that come about to check Big Tech’s power,” said Morgan Harper, director of policy and advocacy at the American Economic Liberties Project, a nonprofit that supports antitrust and corporate accountability legislation. 

As Cicilline steps down, it is not clear who will take the reins from him when he leaves.

He said Democrats who were sponsors of the proposals that came forward, like Jayapal, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) and current House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) are the “likely champions” of the antitrust push in the next Congress. 

Harper said the Rhode Island Democrats’ legacy is going to include “educating a generation of Congressional leaders to both understand the dangers of Big Tech and importantly the antitrust tools that Congress has to do something about it.”

“We really see Congressman Cicilline as a once-in-a-generation leader on antitrust, and in many ways the person Congress was waiting for to move this issue forward,” she said.

As Congress grapples with threats from new emerging technologies, such as the rapid rise of ChatGPT and the wave of rival generative AI products, Cicilline said it is “absolutely essential” that Congress “remain and get current on this technology.” 

“I think one of the things that was a tremendous advantage at the big companies was that Congress, sort of let them do what they want to set back and allowed them to continue to grow and be free from any government oversight or regulation,” he said. 

“I hope that was a lesson and that everyone will recognize that those around to make the jurisdiction need to really stay current with these developments, so that we won't be a decade behind the decision that needs to be enacted,” he added.

House Republicans pass bill to ban federal officials from pressuring tech platforms on content

House Republicans passed a bill on Thursday that seeks to ban federal officials from promoting censorship, a measure Republicans brought to the floor in response to what they say are efforts by the Biden administration to persuade social media companies to suppress certain information.

The measure, titled the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act, passed in a party-line 219-206 vote.

The legislation specifically calls for prohibiting “federal employees from advocating for censorship of viewpoints in their official capacity,” which includes recommending that a third party should “take any action to censor speech.”

According to Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the lead sponsor of the measure, the bill would expand limitations under the Hatch Act to prohibit federal employees from encouraging censorship on private sector internet platforms.

Republicans accuse Democrats of pressuring social media companies to suppress content — including about Hunter Biden and the origins of COVID-19. They also point to platforms limiting the reach of or adding fact checks to posts containing misinformation about the 2020 election and the coronavirus pandemic.

When introducing the measure in January, the bill’s sponsors — Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Comer — cited what they said were instances when federal officials in the Biden administration “used their positions, influence, and resources to police and censor ordinary Americans’ speech expressed on social media platforms.”

On the House floor Wednesday, Comer — who chairs the Oversight and Reform Committee — pointed to the group’s hearing last month when lawmakers “learned just how easy it was for the federal government to influence a private company to accomplish what it constitutionally cannot: limit the free exercise of speech.”

At one point during the hearing, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) asked Yoel Roth, the former global head of trust and safety at Twitter, how many tweets were flagged and removed at the behest of the Biden administration.

Roth denied the characterization of the question, telling lawmakers that “tweets were reported and Twitter independently evaluated them under its rules.”

The hearing also featured references to the “Twitter Files,” reports by journalists that include internal communications between company employees and outside actors. David Zweig, who released one of the “Twitter Files” installments, said internal files from the company that he reviewed “showed that both the Trump and Biden administrations directly pressed Twitter executives to moderate the platform’s pandemic content according to their wishes.”

“It is inappropriate and dangerous for the federal government to decide what lawful speech is allowed on a private sector platform,” Comer said during debate on Wednesday.

“My bill, the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act, makes this type of behavior an unlawful activity for federal officials to engage in — subjecting those who attempt to censor the lawful speech of Americans to disciplinary actions and monetary penalties,” he continued. “The federal government should not be able to decide what lawful speech is allowed — we have the First Amendment for a very good reason.”

Rep. Daniel Goldman (D-N.Y.) argued that the bill was unnecessary because of protections provided under the First Amendment.

“This bill purports to protect free speech from government censorship. And I agree, it’s a great idea. It’s such a good idea, in fact, that the Founding Fathers put it in the Constitution,”  Goldman said on the House floor Wednesday. “It’s called the First Amendment.”

“We don’t need a new bill to protect free speech because that is currently the law of the land. So we must ask ourselves: what is the point of this bill?” he added.

The congressman, who serves as lead counsel in former President Trump’s first impeachment inquiry, argued that the measure would allow malign actors to continue using social media “unfettered” or adverse reasons.

“H.R. 140 would effectively allow these and other foreign malign actors — who have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into online propaganda — to create chaos, mistrust, hate and confusion for Americans, to continue using social media platforms unfettered to wreak havoc on our democratic institutions, including the integrity of our elections,” Goldman said.

“It would do so by undermining the only defense that we have against these operations, which is the ability of our national security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to warn social media platforms and the public about the deployment of counterfeit accounts, disinformation and cyber surveillance by malign actors,” he added.

Lawmakers approved a number of amendments to the bill, including one that would prohibit law enforcement officials from sharing information with social media companies unless it pertains to speech not protected by the First Amendment — such as obscenity, fraud or incitement to imminent lawless action.

The measure also exempts actions from federal employees meant for “exercising legitimate law enforcement functions directly related to activities to combat child pornography, human trafficking, or the illegal transporting of or transacting in controlled substances and safeguarding, or preventing, the unlawful dissemination of properly classified national security information.”

Spike in FBI threats unsettles the right

An uptick in threats to the FBI after it executed a search warrant at former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate is unsettling the political right, with some calling on allies of the former president to tone down their rhetoric.

Barriers have been erected outside the perimeter of the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., while the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reportedly issued a joint bulletin Friday warning about spikes in threats that included a bomb threat at FBI headquarters and calls for “civil war” and “armed rebellion.”

Fox News host Steve Doocy on Monday urged the former president and others to “tamp down the rhetoric against the FBI” in light of the threats, while Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Trump’s language was “inflammatory.”

“I don’t want to put any law enforcement in the bull’s-eye of a potential threat,” McCaul said.

The bulletin issued by DHS and the FBI cited an incident in which a man armed with an AR-15-style rifle allegedly fired a nail gun into an FBI office in Cincinnati last week, according to NBC News. He was fatally shot by police after a chase and standoff, according to Ohio State Highway Patrol.

Trump on Monday in an interview with Fox News did say the temperature on the issue needed to come down, adding that he’d told aides to reach out to the Department of Justice to help.

But in the same interview, Trump directed his wrath at the Justice Department and suggested that his supporters’ anger was justified. Trump said that Americans are “not going to stand for another scam,” said that the FBI can “break into a president’s house” in a “sneak attack” and suggested that the FBI “could have planted anything they wanted” during the search.

In another post on Truth Social, his social media platform, he claimed that his passports had been taken during the search. Passports were not included on a list of items mentioned as part of a warrant released on Friday, though some of the descriptions of what was seized were broad in nature.

The president’s account on the platform his own business launched is one of his most direct ways to reach supporters online now, since he lost access to his Twitter and Facebook accounts after his posts the day of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a former FBI agent, told Margaret Brennan of “Face the Nation” on Sunday that he was concerned about the safety of FBI agents.

“Violence is never the answer to anything,” Fitzpatrick said. “We live in a democracy that's 246 years old, Margaret. That's not long, that's just a few generations, and yet we're the world's only democracy. And the only way that can come unraveled is if we have disrespect for our institutions that lead to Americans turning on Americans and the whole system becomes unraveled. And a lot of that starts with the words we're using.”

“I'm also urging all my colleagues to understand the weight of your words and support law enforcement no matter what,” he added.

Republicans have sought to differentiate between Biden appointees and rank-and-file FBI agents when raising concerns about potential politicization of the department.

“I won't smear the FBI, like the career FBI agents,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) said Friday. “But the political appointees running this stuff are very worrisome.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray was appointed by Trump in 2017.

Some Republicans have continued to use incendiary rhetoric to speak to their massive online bases. 

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), using her official congressional account since her personal Twitter was suspended in January over COVID-19 misinformation, told her 1 million followers Monday that “Republicans must force” the “political persecution” to stop. Greene filed articles of impeachment against Attorney General Merrick Garland last week.

Katherine Keneally, a senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), said she is most concerned about the potential for extremist groups to capitalize on this moment to mobilize for future membership. 

“Specifically, any accelerationist groups that are seeing an uptick in people being upset at the FBI, a government agency, works very well for recruitment for an organization that wants to collapse the US government. So I think that's where my concern is, that these even more nefarious groups are going to use this as a catalyst moment for recruitment,” she said. 

According to a report compiled by ISD analysts, social media accounts believed to belong to the alleged Cincinnati gunman, Ricky Shiffer, suggest he was “motivated by a combination of conspiratorial beliefs related to former President Trump and the 2020 election (among others), interest in killing federal law enforcement, and the recent search warrant executed at Mar-a-Lago earlier this week.”

ISD researchers found that Shiffer was likely prepping for the attack for at least two days, based on posts from a since-removed Truth Social account believed to belong to him.

The researchers also found posts and photographs placing Shiffer at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, although it is not confirmed if he was present during the insurrection, and posts on the right-wing video site Rumble that show Shiffer encouraging users to “get in touch with the Proud Boys,” a far-right group. 

Keneally said the Ohio incident hasn’t been mentioned widely by other far-right users of online platforms, likely because it wasn’t successful. But researchers are still seeing general calls for violence targeting the FBI. 

Those monitoring the online vitriol, across mainstream platforms and fringe sites that cater to conservative users, warned that the posts from lawmakers and influencers online could incite their followers to take real-world action.

“It certainly plays a role in the radicalization process,” Keneally said.

“While they might not be directly calling for violence, the conspiratorial allegations certainly play a role in how these people are radicalized, and how they go down that path, regardless of whether it's an official stating, ‘kill the FBI,’ that's not what needs to be said to help radicalize. You just accused the FBI of ‘overstepping their boundaries,’ or like ‘taking away your constitutional rights,’ and that's what that's what people are mobilizing around,” Keneally said.