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Big Tech faces a reckoning after the Capitol riot

The Capitol insurrection means the anti-tech talk in Washington is more likely to lead to action, since it's ever clearer that the attack was planned, at least in part, on social media.

Why it matters: The big platforms may have hoped they'd move to D.C.'s back burner, with the Hill focused on the Biden agenda and the pandemic out of control. But now, there'll be no escaping harsh scrutiny.


The catch: Actually doing something will still be hard. That's clearest with the debate over Section 230, the federal law that insulates tech companies from liability for content their users post which would take on a new urgency given all of the online planning of the attack.

  • Section 230 has critics from all points of view, but there's little consensus on what would be better.
  • "Following the Jan. 6 attack, the Biden administration is under pressure to do something on Section 230, content and competition, but it’s not clear what," one senior tech policy executive told Axios.

That uncertainty, however, also creates an opening for lawmakers and others looking to play a role in shaping the incoming administration's views on Section 230 and internet regulation more broadly.

The intrigue: There will be a strong appetite within the Oval Office to take a hard look at reforming Section 230.

  • Biden himself once told The New York Times the law should be revoked.
  • Meanwhile, incoming deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed has compared it to gunmakers' immunity from lawsuits over gun crimes, and said Washington would be better off "throwing out Section 230 and starting over."

The view from Capitol Hill: The Biden administration is expected to be less erratic on tech issues than the Trump administration, but also much tougher on Silicon Valley than the Obama administration was. That message is coming across in informal talks the Biden team is having with the Hill.

  • A Democratic congressional aide told Axios that past discussion of regulating giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook has snagged on concerns "that we don’t want to interrupt the delicate geniuses and the economic benefits." Now, the person said, "I haven’t heard any of that once."
  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has spoken with the Biden transition team about potentially exploring Section 230 reform, along with privacy and consumer protection and antitrust enforcement, an aide said.

The other side: Some Democrats view Republicans' interest in killing or eroding Section 230 as proof enough that Biden should handle it with care to avoid breaking a foundational internet law.

  • The office of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has spoken to the Biden transition team about the dangers of rushing to get rid of Section 230. "It would be a surprise if the administration made one of Josh Hawley's top goals one of their priorities," a Wyden aide said.

The big picture: It takes a lot of convergence for legislation to fall into place even when there is broad agreement on the need for action.

  • Flashback: Many thought that major recent privacy laws out of Europe and California would force Washington lawmakers to come up with sweeping federal privacy legislation. But talks in Congress stalled and nothing happened.

What's next: Outside the Section 230 fight, the Trump administration launched suits against Google and Facebook and has been investigating Apple and Amazon.

  • Those actions are now even more likely to stay on the new administration's front burner.

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