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Politics

Trump wants to strike back at Big Tech. There’s not much he can do.

He's already exhausted most of his options.

Trump wants to strike back at Big Tech. There’s not much he can do.

Trump wants to spend his final week as president getting back at Twitter and Facebook for suspending him.

Photo: Oliver Contreras/Getty Images

President Trump has been telling anyone who will listen that he wants to do something to strike back at Big Tech in the final days of his presidency, promising a "big announcement" soon after Twitter permanently banned him last week.

In a statement that Twitter has taken down multiple times, Trump hammered usual targets — Section 230, the "Radical Left" controlling the world's largest tech platforms — and pledged he would not be "SILENCED." But at this point, as he faces a second impeachment and a Republican establishment revolting against him in the waning days of his presidency, there's likely very little that Trump can actually do that would inflict long-lasting damage on tech companies.

With a little more than a week left in his presidency, and facing existential questions about the role that he played in inciting violence in the nation's capitol last week, Trump and top Republicans have every incentive to change the conversation to target Big Tech, their favorite bogeyman. But any efforts would likely amount to performative theatrics that do nothing to wear down the power of the tech platforms, and simply serve to distract from the conversation about whether the president should be immediately removed from office after helping to incite a riot.

"I don't think he has any power," said one Republican technology adviser who is sympathetic to the president's efforts. "It's not like he has any friends right now."

Rachel Bovard, a Capitol Hill veteran and senior adviser for the right-wing Internet Accountability Project, said she would like to see the White House act aggressively against the tech companies, but she's unconvinced the president "can do anything at this point." President-elect Joe Biden could immediately reverse most moves from Trump after his inauguration, which is nine days away.

"Any executive order he puts out will be undone, there's no more regulatory road he can go down with the [Federal Communications Commission]," Bovard said. "I don't know what else can be done."

The Trump administration has already launched significant antitrust investigations and lawsuits into the major platforms, including Google and Facebook. The president signed a social media executive order that went largely ignored by the FCC, Federal Trade Commission and executive branch. (FCC Chairman Ajit Pai confirmed to Protocol last week that he would not move forward with a rule-making on Section 230, one of the executive order's central requests.) And Trump lost his political clout on Capitol Hill virtually overnight last week: As Democrats took back the Senate, Republican senators condemned his involvement in the riots on Capitol Hill, which resulted in five deaths.

Trump won't be able to push through a Section 230 repeal at the eleventh hour as his top allies in Congress are enduring their own controversies over their refusal to certify the Electoral College vote. Though Trumpworld advisers, including Trump's former campaign manager Brad Parscale, are newly calling for antitrust reform to beat back the unprecedented power of the platforms, serious efforts to reform the antitrust laws hit roadblocks from Republicans, including Trump ally Rep. Jim Jordan, last year.

Trump is expected to make a public statement about Big Tech this week, two sources familiar with conversations at the White House told Protocol, though it's unclear what the medium or message would be. He's been suspended from Facebook, Twitter and many other social networks. (There's always cable news, though.)

There's a number of levers he could try to pull, experts said. After all, he is still the most powerful political leader in the world, with access to a range of unilateral executive powers that he's tapped throughout his presidency.

It's within his power to sign an executive order barring federal agencies from using Twitter and Facebook, for example, though agencies have largely ignored the last social media executive order's request to pull back their ad spending from major social media platforms.

"The main power at his disposal is still executive orders," said Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-funded think tank. But any effort to pull federal agencies off of social media likely would prove a bigger headache for the government than for the platforms. "It would be disruptive, it would cause confusion, it would be trending on Twitter, but it wouldn't cause any permanent impact, especially because the Biden administration would probably ask them just to undo those changes," Castro said.

Trump could tap his Justice Department to bring a splashy lawsuit against Twitter or Facebook for censoring him. That would've been easier before former Trump loyalist Attorney General Bill Barr resigned amid escalating tensions with the White House last month. And a lawsuit against any of the tech platforms would immediately face the near-insurmountable roadblock of Section 230.

A lawsuit "wouldn't be quick," said Ellen Goodman, a professor at Rutgers University who specializes in information policy law. "And as long as they have 230 immunity, it won't succeed."

Trump could model a lawsuit against the platforms after PragerU's suit against YouTube, in which the conservative group claimed that YouTube violated the Lanham Act, which protects against misleading advertising, when it filtered out PragerU's videos. That attempt was shot down by a judge who said YouTube, a private company, isn't bound by the First Amendment and can therefore remove any content that its policies deem offensive.

There's a nuclear option that Trump could turn to, which some policymakers have been warning about for years: Under Section 706 of the Communications Act of 1934, the president is empowered to to shut down or take control of "any facility or station for wire communication" if he declares that there is a threat of war in the U.S.

"They could claim Parler is being blocked from Google's service and that's a disruption," said Berin Szóka, president and founder of TechFreedom, a tech think tank. "It has not been used, so it's a little hard to know exactly how far the president could go."

But there is no indication that Trump or his advisers have considered that option, or any other aggressive move that could actually harm the tech platforms, especially beyond Jan. 20.

Trump has signaled that he's interested in setting up his own social media network to compete with the platforms that booted him this week. That long-shot effort would likely require enormous amounts of money, time and resources, especially given that he'd likely have to own every part of the internet stack that his network would rely on to ensure it isn't kicked offline. "Trump would have to have a cable company, his own web servers, his own DNS provider, his own version of Cloudflare," Goodman said.

Trump is the most powerful politician in the world, but ultimately, he may be no match for the tech platforms.

Protocol | Workplace

In Silicon Valley, it’s February 2020 all over again

"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Tech companies are handling the delta variant in differing ways.

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.

Google, Apple, Uber and Lyft have now all told employees they won't have to come back to the office before October as COVID-19 case counts continue to tick back up. Facebook, Google and Uber are now requiring workers to get vaccinated before coming to the office, and Twitter — also requiring vaccines — went so far as to shut down its reopened offices on Wednesday, and put future office reopenings on hold.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

After a year and a half of living and working through a pandemic, it's no surprise that employees are sending out stress signals at record rates. According to a 2021 study by Indeed, 52% of employees today say they feel burnt out. Over half of employees report working longer hours, and a quarter say they're unable to unplug from work.

The continued swell of reported burnout is a concerning trend for employers everywhere. Not only does it harm mental health and well-being, but it can also impact absenteeism, employee retention and — between the drain on morale and high turnover — your company culture.

Crisis management is one thing, but how do you permanently lower the temperature so your teams can recover sustainably? Companies around the world are now taking larger steps to curb burnout, with industry leaders like LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shutting down their offices for a full week to allow all employees extra time off. The CEO of Okta, worried about burnout, asked all employees to email him their vacation plans in 2021.

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Stella Garber
Stella Garber is Trello's Head of Marketing. Stella has led Marketing at Trello for the last seven years from early stage startup all the way through its acquisition by Atlassian in 2017 and beyond. Stella was an early champion of remote work, having led remote teams for the last decade plus.
Protocol | China

Livestreaming ecommerce next battleground for China’s nationalists

Vendors for Nike and even Chinese brands were harassed for not donating enough to Henan.

Nationalists were trolling in the comment sections of livestream sessions selling products by Li-Ning, Adidas and other brands.

Collage: Weibo, Bilibili

The No. 1 rule of sales: Don't praise your competitor's product. Rule No. 2: When you are put to a loyalty test by nationalist trolls, forget the first rule.

While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.

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Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.
Power

The video game industry is bracing for its Netflix and Spotify moment

Subscription gaming promises to upend gaming. The jury's out on whether that's a good thing.

It's not clear what might fall through the cracks if most of the biggest game studios transition away from selling individual games and instead embrace a mix of free-to-play and subscription bundling.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Subscription services are coming for the game industry, and the shift could shake up the largest and most lucrative entertainment sector in the world. These services started as small, closed offerings typically available on only a handful of hardware platforms. Now, they're expanding to mobile phones and smart TVs, and promising to radically change the economics of how games are funded, developed and distributed.

Of the biggest companies in gaming today, Amazon, Apple, Electronic Arts, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Sony and Ubisoft all operate some form of game subscription. Far and away the most ambitious of them is Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, featuring more than 100 games for $9.99 a month and including even brand-new titles the day they release. As of January, Game Pass had more than 18 million subscribers, and Microsoft's aggressive investment in a subscription future has become a catalyst for an industrywide reckoning on the likelihood and viability of such a model becoming standard.

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Protocol | Policy

Lina Khan wants to hear from you

The new FTC chair is trying to get herself, and the sometimes timid tech-regulating agency she oversees, up to speed while she still can.

Lina Khan is trying to push the FTC to corral tech companies

Photo: Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images

"When you're in D.C., it's very easy to lose connection with the very real issues that people are facing," said Lina Khan, the FTC's new chair.

Khan made her debut as chair before the press on Wednesday, showing up to a media event carrying an old maroon book from the agency's library and calling herself a "huge nerd" on FTC history. She launched into explaining how much she enjoys the open commission meetings she's pioneered since taking over in June. That's especially true of the marathon public comment sessions that have wrapped up each of the two meetings so far.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

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