Future Tense

Republicans Are Too Fixated on “Bias” to Conduct Actual Oversight of Tech

Faced with the rare opportunity to grill four tech CEOs, they asked questions about Gateway Pundit and faulty spam folders.

Mark Zuckerberg on a TV screen testifying before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law on July 29
Mark Zuckerberg faces the politicians he’s purportedly wronged. Mandel Ngan/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday, the CEOs of four of the world’s largest tech companies—Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg—appeared via videoconference before the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, ostensibly to answer questions about whether they have used monopolistic powers to squash competition. Coming after a yearlong investigation, it was an unprecedented opportunity for lawmakers to delve into the practices that have allowed these tech giants to corner dominant portions of their respective markets. Yet Republicans on the antitrust subcommittee didn’t appear to be especially concerned about antitrust. Instead they generally focused on their unproven grievances that major tech platforms are biased against conservatives.

It was obvious from the very beginning that Republicans weren’t going to pay much heed to the topic of the hearing, “Online Platforms and Market Power, Part 6: Examining the Dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.” Ranking member Jim Sensenbrenner, the first Republican to speak during the hearing, initially extolled the history of antitrust law, but soon charged that “reports that dissenting views, often conservative views, are targeted or censored is seriously troubling.” Rep. Jim Jordan, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, which includes the antitrust subcommittee, didn’t even mention the hearing’s topic in his opening statement, beginning his remarks by stating, “I’ll just cut to the chase: Big Tech is out to get conservatives. That’s not a hunch, that’s not a suspicion, that’s a fact.”

Conservatives have long grumbled about what they perceive as a concerted attempt by online platforms to silence them. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee even held an entire hearing on the subject last year. While it is true that tech employees do often have liberal leanings, there is little to suggest that these companies’ products, algorithms, and policies are designed to tilt the political scales. If anything, digital platforms are biased toward emotional and sensational content that will get the most clicks and drive ad dollars. And Republicans’ suspicion would seem to elide the fact that conservative figures and publications dominate the rankings for the most-engaged pages on Facebook.

Despite the lack of substantive evidence that there is actually an anti-conservative cabal controlling Silicon Valley, Republican lawmakers were intent on using their limited time to present lawmakers with questionable and often nonsensical examples of censorship.

Republican Florida Rep. Greg Steube, for example, took the flimsy tack of citing anecdotal examples from his personal life. Steube first claimed that he had tried to do a Google search for the far-right, conspiracy-happy publication Gateway Pundit and did not see it among the top results. He also said that he wasn’t able to access the website when he typed in the URL, for unspecified reasons. He then reported that he was able to access the website from Google search within the last two weeks, and implied that the company had changed its algorithm—worth billions of dollars—in anticipation of the hearing. Steube then recalled an incident in which a supporter (who he later said was his father) did not receive one of his campaign emails because it had ended up in Gmail’s spam folder, seemingly accusing Google of designing an anti-conservative spam filter. Democratic Florida Rep. Val Demings, who was up next to conduct questioning, quickly pointed out that her campaign emails have also ended up in spam folders, as well.

Later in the hearing, Sensenbrenner said to Zuckerberg, “Let me ask a specific of you: It was reported that Donald Trump Jr. got taken down for a period of time because he put something up on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine,” before launching into a lecture on the importance of allowing for debate around the debunked coronavirus cure. Zuckerberg replied, “Congressman, first, to be clear, I think what you might be referring to happened on Twitter. So, it’s hard for me to speak to that.”

Some Republicans did press the CEOs on the topic at hand. Colorado Rep. Ken Buck confronted Bezos about reports that Amazon had been using third-party sellers’ proprietary data to launch its own competing products. On the other hand, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz took the opportunity to question Pichai’s embrace of “American values.” By focusing so much time on weak examples of supposed conservative censorship, Republican lawmakers on the subcommittee have essentially prevented themselves from conducting oversight on a wide array of tech-related issues that are in dire need of addressing. (The hearing was still ongoing as of this writing.)

The overall tenor of the Republican members’ priorities came into sharpest focus when Jordan was instructed to wear his mask when he was interrupting another representative’s time. He yelled, “You want to talk about masks—why would the deputy secretary of treasury unmask Michael Flynn’s name?”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.