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Conservative groups defend tech from GOP crackdown

TheHill.comBY EMILY BIRNBAUM – 

Tech companies, which have long denied those allegations, are now finding a surprising ally in conservative groups that worry the government will hamper a growing industry and tamper with free speech protections.  Conservative groups, including many backed by billionaire conservative activist Charles Koch, are launching an aggressive campaign to voice their concerns even as lawmakers aligned with them on other issues, such as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley(R-Mo.), threaten tougher regulations on tech firms.
Jesse Blumenthal, the lead on tech and innovation policy for the Koch network, told The Hill that many groups on the right believe GOP lawmakers are “playing politics” with the issue “in a way that is deeply unhelpful and really threatens core free speech protections.”  “That’s one of the reasons you’ve seen us be noticeable, more vocal over the last few months,” Blumenthal said, referring to the Koch network’s increasing involvement on tech issues. “And we’ll continue to be.”
Blumenthal added there is “no credible evidence that there is a broad campaign to silence conservatives online.”
The issue, though, is one that is resonating with GOP lawmakers and the party’s base.
Cruz stepped up the fight over bias during a Senate hearing on Wednesday, threatening to use antitrust laws to regulate tech or repeal a key provision that gives internet platforms legal immunity for content users post online, called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Much of Cruz’s criticism of the tech companies at the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing stemmed from allegations that they are biased against conservatives.
“I believe Congress should reconsider and potentially repeal Section 230,” Cruz told reporters during a phone call on Thursday. “There’s no reason big tech deserves a special immunity from liability that nobody else gets if they are going to be partisan political players and speakers expressing their own views.”  Though Cruz said applying antitrust laws to the world’s largest tech companies could be “complicated,” he said he is concerned about their enormous market power and influence.
On the day of the hearing, conservative groups quickly pushed back on Cruz’s calls for more government regulation of tech.
Americans for Prosperity, the Koch network’s primary political advocacy group, issued a statement in support of Section 230, headlined “Government Shouldn’t Be Policing Free Speech Online.” The day after the hearing, an expert with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a major conservative think tank, published an article disputing the hearing’s premise.  “Even the anecdotal evidence of Big Tech’s anti-conservative bias isn’t super compelling,” wrote James Pethokoukis, an AEI fellow. AEI, like many organizations in Washington, receives money from Google and other tech companies.
Cruz is not alone. A growing number of GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), have weighed government action to curb big tech’s power.
But conservative activists who spoke to The Hill argue that goes against the GOP’s support for free markets and speech.
Free market advocates said modifying Section 230 could result in more censorship of speech online as companies cracked down on controversial content to avoid legal action. And they said antitrust enforcement could hinder “innovation.”  That’s driving a wedge between groups that normally find themselves allied with GOP lawmakers.  Alec Stapp, a research fellow with the International Center for Law & Economics, said he believes Cruz and Hawley are riding a “populist push to rein in the big tech companies.”
But he said that “there’s nothing principled or free market about that.”
The Lincoln Network, a right-leaning tech advocacy organization, has been meeting with conservative lawmakers to argue against modifying Section 230 or turning to antitrust enforcement. The Lincoln Network is part of the State Policy Network, which receives funding from the Koch brothers as well as tech companies that include Facebook and Microsoft.
Ryan Radia, who was recently hired as senior policy counsel with the Lincoln Network, told The Hill the organization has been “speaking with conservatives in Washington, D.C., and trying to explain the perils of using the government to help achieve outcomes in the political discourse.”
Radia accused conservatives of seeking to use antitrust enforcement “in a way that harms entities that they perceive as political foes.”
Both Hawley and Cruz have addressed some of the issues raised by free market advocates.
“I’m all for the free market, but the free market depends on free and fair competition,” Hawley said during a podcast this week. “And my worry is that is not what we have now, that you have these companies that have grown so huge, and that they’re exerting monopoly power, market concentration.”  Hawley in 2017 prompted an antitrust investigation into Google as the attorney general of Missouri.  Cruz, who served as director of the Office of Policy Planning at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under former President George W. Bush, said during the Thursday call that “nobody in their right mind wants to see the federal government regulating speech.”
But he is keeping up the threat of legislative action if the companies do not provide more “transparency” over how they moderate content.  Radia said he has not seen evidence that GOP lawmakers have a “well-thought-out view” on what they would do to Section 230.  “I think there is some working of the refs going on,” Radia said, adding that the threat of an overhaul has pushed the companies to “showcase their open-mindedness on political issues.”
Conservative groups, though, are wary of what’s ahead.  Blumenthal said many libertarian-leaning groups are worried about tech regulation “becoming a political piñata.” “Especially if the political actors see it through,” he added.

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