Congress has failed to act on every opportunity it had to seriously rein in the power of Big Tech over the last several years. Negotiations over a federal privacy bill fell apart last year, antitrust reform hit partisan headwinds and every debate over content moderation since 2016 has devolved into a theatrical yelling match that left the parties more divided over solutions than ever.
And now, the bigger-than-ever Silicon Valley is flexing its muscles with impunity as companies cut off violent extremists and wield the power of their political donations, acting more like a government than the U.S. government itself. They're leaving Republicans and Democrats more frustrated and powerless than ever in their wake.
"There's a cultural problem in Silicon Valley — they want to be the government," said one Democratic House aide.
Google, Facebook and Microsoft this week became the latest corporations to announce they are suspending contributions from their political action committees following last week's violent riots on Capitol Hill, which were incited in part by President Trump and a cadre of Republicans who spent weeks falsely claiming the presidential election had been stolen. Meanwhile, tech companies like Amazon, Airbnb and Intel said they are suspending campaign contributions specifically to the Republicans who voted against certifying the results of the U.S. election, making it clear that those lawmakers bear some responsibility for the chaos and violence.
"Given the unacceptable attempt to undermine a legitimate democratic process, the Amazon PAC has suspended contributions to any Member of Congress who voted to override the results of the U.S. presidential election," an Amazon spokesperson said on Monday. "We intend to discuss our concerns directly with those members we have previously supported and will evaluate their responses as we consider future PAC contributions."
It's an amazing display of power from an industry that has shied away from politics, and especially the appearance of partisanship, for years. The tech companies' PACs deliberately contribute to both Republicans and Democrats equally, but the events of this past week have forced corporations to stake out stances that they never would have before, drawing out the limits of how far they will go in the name of neutrality.
"We've never seen anything like this," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which advocates for campaign finance reform. "This is unique. It's the reaction to an effort to overturn an election and basically violate the fundamental rules of our democracy." He added: "We will see whether it's real or temporary."
The companies are taking a gamble that could land them in hot water as Democrats assume control of the House, Senate and White House. Facebook, Google and Microsoft's approach in particular has rankled Democrats, who say they're being punished for Republicans' sins as companies temporarily pause all of their PAC spending, rather than contributions to the particular lawmakers.
"Instead of holding the guilty responsible, their decision to treat the guilty and innocent the same is the type of political calculus that led us here," Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky said in a statement. She saved her most pointed ire for Facebook, who she has sparred with as chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce consumer protection subcommittee: "Most cowardly and despicable is Facebook, who is unwilling and unable to confront their role in fostering the hatred that led to this action."
A number of corporations have temporarily suspended PAC contributions altogether, but aides told Protocol that Democrats have been particularly aggrieved by Big Tech's total pullback.
"It's like 'all lives matter,'" said the Democratic congressional aide. The aide said the blame lies with Republican lobbyists in the government affairs shops of the companies, most prominently Facebook. "I know the decisions at those companies were all made by people whose loyalty is to the GOP and not to the United States, nor their companies. That's been the case for a long time, this is just laying it bare for everyone to see."
The companies that paused their donations this week made it clear that it's a temporary decision as they rethink and reconsider their previous political contribution tactics. Margaret O'Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who focuses on the history of Silicon Valley, said it's likely the companies will begin spending again within a few months — just as Democrats begin bearing down in their efforts to regulate the platforms.
"The large tech companies are among the biggest spenders in D.C. now," O'Mara said. "That's not going to go away. They're going to be working very hard to make sure that regulation is something that's going to work for them and work for their business."
Republicans and Democrats for years have made noise about the growing power of the tech companies. But now, in the absence of any regulation, they face a situation in which those companies are larger and more powerful than ever, with the ability to make decisions that affect millions of Americans and every member of Congress without any oversight. And it's yet to be seen if Congress will finally do something about it.