The attempt to block Joe Biden’s election win is triggering collateral damage in Washington over tech: unraveling bipartisan alliances of lawmakers fed up with Silicon Valley.
Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) found rare agreement in recent years with progressive Democrats, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), over the push to rein in tech titans like Facebook and Google. Hawley, a close ally to former President Donald Trump, showed a particular willingness to work across the aisle to push for stricter protections for Americans’ personal data and to bolster safeguards for children online.
But after Hawley and Cruz led efforts to object to Biden’s certification as president just hours after last month’s deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, those partnerships are splintering.
Asked whether Blumenthal plans any future collaboration on tech with the two GOP lawmakers, spokesperson Maria McElwain said he “has no immediate plans to work directly with either Sen. Cruz or Sen. Hawley.” Asked the same, an aide to Markey replied, “No.”
Markey has also told outside groups working on tech issues that he has no plans to partner again with Hawley on legislation, as they did in 2019 on a high-profile bill to update kids’ privacy laws, according to an advocate familiar with the matter, who requested anonymity to discuss private talks.
Jeffrey Chester, executive director of advocacy group Center for Digital Democracy and a longtime ally to Markey, said his organization wouldn’t support even its top legislative priority — bolstering kids’ privacy laws — if Hawley or Cruz helped lead the push. And he said he’s made his stance known to Markey’s staff.
“We want nothing to do with Hawley, nothing to do with Cruz,” he said, adding that their support for any tech proposal “is a kiss of death.”
Chester, whose group endorsed Markey and Hawley’s proposal to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, called it a “loss” for their movement because Hawley had offered a “valuable” critique of the tech industry. “He understood the dimensions of power of leading digital companies,” he said.
The fissure typifies the broader outrage within the Democratic Party over Hawley and Cruz’s role in challenging Biden’s decisive Electoral College victory. A slew of prominent Democrats including Blumenthal have since called for an ethics probe into their actions, while others have called for them to resign.
But the break on tech policy deals an especially sudden and significant blow to bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill to crack down on alleged abuses by industry giants, where surprise partnerships between liberals and conservatives sparked hope among big tech critics of legislative action.
The GOP senators fired back at Democrats for pulling back from working with them on tech issues.
Hawley accused the Democratic senators of putting "politics ahead of protecting children online."
"This is a classic example of the Washington swamp giving Big Tech exactly what they are hoping for and sinking any attempt at making real change," he said in a statement. "My colleagues may have caved to the woke mob, but I won’t stop fighting for families and consumers to hold Big Tech accountable.”
Hawley also pointed out that Markey challenged Ohio’s Electoral College votes in 2005 when President George W. Bush won reelection, amid suspicions among some Democrats about that state’s paperless voting machines. “Memories in this body must be short," he said. The Democratic lawmakers who led the push said at the time they objected to draw attention to voter disenfranchisement, not to overturn Bush’s victory.
Cruz spokesperson Jessica Skaggs said in a statement that it’s “unfortunate so many Democrats have abandoned President Biden’s calls for unity.”
Since taking office in 2019, Hawley has partnered with Blumenthal and Markey on a flurry of letters targeting alleged abuses by Silicon Valley companies, including missives calling for a federal investigation into purported privacy violations by video-sharing app TikTok, urging regulators to investigate ties between video conferencing platform Zoom and the Chinese government and pressing the Justice Department to expand its inquiry into Google.
Hawley has also co-authored legislation to strengthen protections for children’s online privacy with Markey, co-sponsored a proposal to weaken the tech industry’s liability protections with Blumenthal and co-introduced a bill with Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia to force social media companies to disclose how they are making money off users’ personal information.
While Cruz hasn’t partnered with Democrats on letters and legislation relating to the tech industry to the same degree as Hawley, he’s used similar arguments and critiques as liberal lawmakers including Blumenthal and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in calling for reining in the industry’s legal protections and cracking down on their power and influence.
Allies of the Democratic lawmakers say those alliances aren’t worth working with Republicans who they now see as undermining the government as a whole.
Jim Steyer, a prominent children’s safety advocate and the CEO of Common Sense Media, said Hawley and Cruz “disgraced themselves as ‘constitutional experts’ by undermining our democracy and seeking to overturn the electoral processes.”
“Their hypocrisy makes them pariahs,” said Steyer, who taught at Stanford University while Hawley was a college student there. “We can and will find better partners on both sides of the aisle who prioritize kids and technology and who stand with us in holding tech companies accountable.”
The new divisions mean the pool of Republicans that Senate Democrats may be willing to negotiate with on tech issues ranging from privacy to competition is narrowing after the Capitol riot. That could make it tougher to get legislation across the finish line, with Democrats holding narrow majorities in both the House and Senate that limit their ability to move proposals without some GOP buy-in.
The advocate who noted Markey’s statements about Hawley argued it will be particularly challenging for Democrats to find a lead partner on tech legislation to replace the Missouri senator. Hawley has emerged as one of the most outspoken Republican critics of tech companies’ privacy and business practices, and particularly on children’s safety issues.
“It’s hard to know who could replace him as that kind of lead person, or if anybody even has interest in doing that. I think that that’s a real loss,” the individual said.
Chester said he hopes more promising bipartisan partnerships on tech issues will emerge due to the growing concern across both parties on Capitol Hill about the conduct of Silicon Valley giants. “It’s a loss we can recover from,” he said.
Still, the new divisions could dim the prospect for immediate action, he said.
“You may not have something in this cycle, congressional cycle,” Chester said. “But they’ll move along. We’ll find replacements.”
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