Politics & Policy

Majority of Commerce Senators Who Questioned Big Tech CEOs Have Raked in Campaign Cash from Same Firms, Records Show

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appears on a monitor as he testifies remotely during the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing ‘”Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?” on Capitol Hill, October 28, 2020. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via Reuters)

FEC data shows that Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee — which hosted a Thursday hearing with the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter — have received nearly $1 million in 2020 campaign contributions from individuals and PACs associated with the same three firms.

The hearing was called to address a number of politically-charged questions about how the platforms moderate content and how their executives understand the scope and scale of Section 230, which shields the platforms from liability for content posted by third-party users.

But it often devolved into party squabbling, with Republicans grilling the CEOs over allegations of bias against conservatives while Democrats accused them of using the hearing to as a pre-election stunt.

In the end, when it came to actionable items, some Big Tech critics were disappointed, while other Big Tech proponents were pleased.

“The hearing was kind of dumb,” Matt Stoller, director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project, told National Review in an email.

“This hearing featured something we’ve rarely seen these days: strong defenses of Section 230 from Senators on both sides of the aisle,” Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel at NetChoice, a trade association that lobbies for Facebook, Google, Twitter, said in a statement. “We’re glad that lawmakers are appreciating the widespread benefits of Section 230 and the costs to startups if it’s amended. We look forward to working with Congress to further show how amending Section 230 harms free expression while doing little to address lawmakers’ concerns.”

According to data compiled by Open Secrets and reviewed by National Review, nearly three-quarters of the entire Commerce committee — 19 out of 26 members — have received a total of $963,776 in campaign donations this year alone from pro-Facebook, Alphabet/Google, and Twitter individuals and PACs, with Democrats more than doubling the overall haul of Republicans, $673,454 to $290,322.

Nine of the 14 GOP members in the Senate Commerce majority have taken recent contributions, compared to 10 of the 12 Democrats in the minority. While PACs associated with the tech firms in question have roughly given equally to both sides — $220,500 to Republicans compared to $219,500 to Democrats — individual contributions to the left dwarf those made to the right: $453,954 to $69,822.

Stoller said that he suspects “the money does have an impact, though it is of course always hard to know quite how.”

Despite the fact that the Justice Department opened a major antitrust lawsuit into Google last week, and with reports suggesting a case against Facebook is also in the cards, neither side devoted much time to monopoly concerns. Commerce Republicans spent their time focusing on conservative censorship, including Twitter’s decision to lock the New York Post’s account for the paper’s Hunter Biden laptop story, and asking about the political leanings of the platform’s employees, and it took several hours for Senator Deb Fischer (R., Neb.) to ask the first question about Section 230, the subject of the hearing. Three Republicans who have each accepted contributions from Big Tech — Roy Blunt of Missouri, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, and Todd Young of Indiana — did not show up.

During the hearing, Senator John Thune (R., S.D.), who has taken $30,100 from Google-associated donors in 2020, brought up the contrast in political donations among Big Tech employees, asking “how do you respond to that argument, that there isn’t balance in terms of political ideology?”

And after Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai warned lawmakers “to be very thoughtful about any changes of Section 230,” Senator Jerry Moran (R., Kan.), recipient of $26,200 this year from pro-Google individuals and PACs, urged his colleagues to be careful about inserting transparency requirements to Section 230 protections.

Some Democrats countered by pushing the platforms to reject critiques from conservatives.

“Do not let the U.S. Senate bully you into carrying water for those who want to advance misinformation,” Senator Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii), who has received $39,300 connected to Google and $30,000 to Facebook this year, told the CEOs. “Don’t let the specter of removing 230 protections, amending antitrust law, or any other kinds of threats push you to be a party to the subversion of our democracy.”

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