Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has spurred strong responses, largely along partisan lines. While politicians grapple with whether the action calls for praise or regulation, they should be careful not to miss the more subtle lesson that targeting specific companies with legislation is bad policy. Bipartisan support — in part due to conservative concerns over censorship — has helped drive forward antitrust legislation. However, now that Twitter’s new ownership seems set to placate some of those concerns, it remains difficult to stop the regulatory momentum Republicans have helped drive forward.
Musk’s months-long journey to buy Twitter has finally come to an end. After offering to purchase the company in April and the subsequent legal back and forth, Musk ultimately closed the deal on October 27, a day before the judge-appointed deadline.
The primary difference many users and investors expect under Musk’s ownership of Twitter is changes in how the platform monitors tweets. Musk has repeatedly made statements about the importance of free speech and his vision for turning the platform into a digital town square. This position has been met with celebration by some conservatives who have either been banned from the platform or believe they have been unfairly censured due to their political beliefs.
Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) is one such conservative who tweeted her excitement and hope that the purchase would help “rein in Big Tech.” While this quote is specific to perceived censorship, it mirrors other efforts on Capitol Hill that focus on reining in large tech companies through targeted antitrust laws.
Reining in Big Tech has been the focus of a variety of bipartisan legislation. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has taken the lead on pushing forward legislation that would target large tech companies with specific regulations in the name of antitrust. Bills such as the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) would limit common business practices such as companies preferencing their own products and services and combining products and services for a lower price, and would also require large tech companies to share data with business partners.
Notable Republicans such as Senator Ted Cruz (T-TX) have backed such legislation. Cruz goes even farther by asserting that large tech companies are “the single greatest threat to free speech.” These beliefs about censorship have helped to create a shared target and an unlikely alliance across the aisle with the singular goal of weaponizing legislation against Big Tech.
The momentum to regulate Big Tech that Republicans have helped stoke will not suddenly die with new Twitter ownership. Amid mixed responses to Musk’s purchase, Klobuchar has stated that platforms like Twitter should be held liable for content that “amplifies” hate or election misinformation. While the overall goal of such legislation may not be controversial, the interpretation and definition of enforceable terms would likely be contentious.
Klobuchar’s desire for new legislation would extend beyond existing bills such as the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act (PACT) introduced by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI). The PACT Act would require social media platforms to publicly state content guidelines and processes for the removal of content. Additionally, the legislation would strip liability protections from platforms that do not remove illegal content within specified timeframes. Unfortunately for conservative lawmakers, many of whose gripes have been quelled through new Twitter ownership, the anti-Big Tech movement that both sides have helped drive will not disintegrate easily.
The change in Twitter’s ownership and Musk’s public promises to unleash free speech highlight why targeting companies with legislation is bound to backfire. The market changes faster than legislation, as shown by the switch in Twitter’s policies before legislation could be passed. Dynamic changes in the marketplace aren’t limited to Twitter. Klobuchar’s original AICOA bill had a $600 billion market cap threshold meant to target specific tech companies which included Meta — Facebook’s parent company. However, back in February, Meta’s market cap dropped below the threshold and the company has struggled to regain lost ground since.
Targeting companies through legislation is impractical when considering slow-moving legislation and dynamic market changes. Market dynamics are better able to solve social gripes than legislation. Yet the political momentum to regulate Big Tech companies that has been pushed forward for diverse — often partisan — reasons is not likely to pause just because company policies have changed. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle should consider the lesson that Twitter teaches: that legislation aimed at specific companies is bound to miss the intended target.
Tirzah Duren is a policy analyst at the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.