Trump's Social Media Lawsuit Is Mostly Messaging, But Tech Regulation Is Coming : The NPR Politics Podcast Former president Donald Trump filed a lawsuit this week claiming that his rights are violated by social media bans, claims legal experts say are spurious. But there has long been a push for big tech regulation in Washington, and it appears that the wheels are starting to turn.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, congressional editor Deirdre Walsh, and technology correspondent Shannon Bond.

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Trump's Social Media Lawsuit Is Mostly Messaging, But Tech Regulation Is Coming

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GRACE: Hi. This is Grace (ph) from Pennsylvania. I have three little kids, and my husband works about a hundred hours a week as a surgical resident. And I'm waiting for my mom to arrive, our first visitors in over six months. This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

2:06 p.m. on Thursday, July 8.

GRACE: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. For example, I will have help with my kids and company while my husband works overnight for the first time in 189 days. Yes, I counted.

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KEITH: Oh, my gosh. I just feel the relief for her.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Thank God. I hope she gets a good night's sleep.

KEITH: Yes - or just, like, coffee alone. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

WALSH: And I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

KEITH: So this is an awkward line that I never really imagined having to say on this podcast, but here goes - Facebook, Google and Amazon are among NPR's financial supporters, which might be a clue that today we are talking about Big Tech, and NPR's Shannon Bond is joining the podcast once again. Hello, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hello, hello.

KEITH: Hello. So let us start with the most recent thing, which is that former President Trump has filed what he hopes will become class-action lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which is owned by Google. So let's start with his complaint. What is it?

BOND: Well, you might remember that all three of those platforms kicked Trump off after the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. They were - at the time, they said they were worried that he was going to contribute to the risk of violence. And so what Trump's lawsuits allege is that they - these - this banning is a form of censorship. He's saying the tech giants are censoring him - not just him, other conservatives, too. That's where the class-action part comes in. You know, and that's a long-running complaint we've heard from the right. There's little evidence for it. The companies deny it. But it is, you know, a talking point they return to again and again.

So in these complaints, Trump is asking for two things. He wants the court to order the companies to give him and the other plaintiffs their accounts back. And then, second, there is this federal law that protects tech companies from being sued over their content decisions. Trump wants the court to declare that law unconstitutional.

KEITH: Yeah. And he has railed against that law for a while now, back when he was president and, certainly, in his postpresidency as well. But I guess the question is, is there there-there (ph) in these lawsuits, or are these lawsuits more about, like, the fundraising email I got from Trump after he made the announcement?

BOND: Yeah. I mean, look; this - these complaints - right? - like, his argument here is that these companies are violating his First Amendment right to free speech. Now, as you may remember from high school civics, that's not actually how the First Amendment works. The First Amendment is about the government restricting speech.

KEITH: Is he arguing that they're the government?

BOND: Well, that is part of it. He is saying that, basically, they are acting like arms of the government, in part because, you know, they point to the fact that all of these companies have been working with agencies like the CDC in terms of identifying, you know, potential misinformation about the coronavirus, right? And so he's saying that those sort of arrangements, as well as just kind of the scope and power of these companies, you know, means that they basically are what is called state actors.

Now, legal experts I talked to said that's just not an argument that's going to fly in court. It is an argument people have tried to make in other cases. Those lawsuits almost always get tossed out really early on because, frankly, the companies themselves have First Amendment rights. You actually can't force them to let you post on their platforms. But, as you said, you know, that's kind of not the point here. Trump is already fundraising off these lawsuits.

Putting aside the merits of the legal arguments, I think there's something we shouldn't miss here - right? - which is - this case, as much as people may be sort of saying, look; it's a joke, it's going to get tossed - it is reflecting real cultural sentiment here, right?

KEITH: Yeah.

BOND: People - Republicans and Democrats - are increasingly wary about the role that companies like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Google are playing in all aspects of our lives, their enormous reach and power over communications, politics, the way we talk to each other, the way we work, the way we learn. And so I think you kind of - that's one reason not to entirely ignore this, just because the lawsuits themselves may be meaningless.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, he is someone who has filed lawsuits in place of sending out press releases at times, it seems like. But you're right. He is not a man alone on having concerns about Big Tech. And, Deirdre, you know, we've talked about this on the podcast many times. Big Tech went from being these sort of do-no-wrong darlings to bipartisan bogeymen. And on Capitol Hill, where there is very little agreement on anything, it does seem that there is a consensus that these companies are too powerful, if nothing else.

WALSH: Absolutely. I mean, the tide has really shifted on this issue. These companies have staved off any meaningful regulations from, you know, executive agencies or from Congress for years. But both parties really now have come together and - because they both have gripes about these companies.

Republicans are responding to this very intense sentiment among their base, which Shannon touched on, related to the Trump lawsuit, that these companies are censoring conservatives. They think that they have special treatment, that they don't - you know, they're treated, you know, differently than other companies, and they want them to be limited somehow. I mean, there's debate about how far to go within the party, but the party overall is united in the sentiment that they need to do something because the base is really crying out for action. And Democrats believe these companies have just become too powerful, and they're stifling competition. And they see a government role to step in there.

KEITH: I have a question for you guys, though, because I - when I watch TV, I often see these ads from the Big Tech companies essentially arguing that they should be regulated, and I'm a little confused by that. What is going on there? Is that a strategy?

BOND: Yeah. So I - the ads you're probably talking about that you see most frequently - and you probably hear them on a lot of podcasts if you listen to other podcasts - they are from Facebook. You know, they're putting out these ads saying, you know, it's been decades since any meaningful regulation. We support regulation. You know, we want new laws. Please regulate us. You know, I think that's some of the strongest evidence that, you know, as Deirdre said, the tide has really turned. The companies know that. They may not know what new rules are going to look like, but they see this as a risk, right? And so they want to be involved in shaping the legislation. They want to make sure, you know, it doesn't go too far.

And so you know, I think they realize that they have become these targets, these sort of punching bags, and they want to say, hey, hey, we're willing to work with you guys. You know, what that looks like - you know, they have armies of lobbyists who - you know, they spend a ton of money, all of these companies, on lobbying in Washington. So you know, what that looks like - still really TBD. But, yeah, I think it's an absolute indication that they see this coming inevitably.

WALSH: And I think while there's this public effort to say, we get it, we understand there need to be some changes, and we're with you, and we're willing to work with you, there is an intense behind-the-scenes campaign to stop, you know, virtually whatever Congress is doing or water it down to the point where it won't meaningfully change sort of how the government interacts with them.

KEITH: Well, and one might suggest that companies that don't want meaningful change might be aided by the fact that Democrats and Republicans in Congress do not agree about precisely what the problem is or, certainly, how to fix it.

BOND: The one thing they agree on is there is a problem with tech. But once you get into any kind of details, even describing what that problem is, like, you hear a completely different view of the world from Republicans and from Democrats.

WALSH: But I do think one thing that's notable is that you have this really interesting coalition of politicians from both sides of the aisle working together on these bills. I mean, you have this very conservative Colorado Republican, Ken Buck, who is, you know, sort of on the right side of the Republican conference in the House, working with, like, liberal Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler to advance a whole bunch of bills. And so that's something that's really different and something that's really forced Big Tech to sort of gear up and respond.

KEITH: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back - the antitrust challenges Big Tech might face.

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KEITH: And we're back. And, Shannon, there is a new top dog at the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan. The FTC is the independent agency that enforces antitrust laws, and Khan wrote something as a Yale law student called "Amazon's Antitrust Paradox," which, if you're Amazon, I imagine does not make you feel great.

BOND: That's right. Actually, just last week, Amazon requested that Khan be recused from any cases involving the company.

KEITH: (Laughter) That's a tactic.

BOND: Right. Right. I mean, and the FTC is already reportedly looking at Amazon's purchase of MGM, and it says, you know - basically, Amazon's argument is, you know, look at her previous criticisms. She's already made up her mind here. So she's seeing a challenge right off the bat. And, look; I mean, Lina Khan, she's the youngest FTC Chair ever appointed. This is a big change at this agency. She brings a really different perspective when it comes to the agency's role in regulating big companies and protecting consumers.

You know, we don't need to go into the nitty-gritty details of antitrust policy, but basically, she's just - she's one of the most prominent progressive voices calling for just much more aggressive curbs on big companies, even breaking them up. You know, I would say, you know, that - what we were just talking about before, this - the idea that things have really changed in Washington, the fact that you have somebody like Lina Khan heading this agency, that really brings home how much this attitude toward Silicon Valley, you know, has shifted and how there's just so much more - there's a lot more appetite, I think, for these much more aggressive approaches to taking on their power.

KEITH: While we are talking about antitrust, state attorneys general are going after Google over what they say is anti-competitive behavior in the Android app store.

BOND: Yeah, this is a lawsuit that's been brought by more than 30 states, and it's actually now the fourth lawsuit we have from either state AGs - or the other one is from the Department of Justice - accusing Google of operating like an illegal monopoly. Some of these other suits are challenging its dominance in search and in digital advertising. And, you know, this is, again, like, more indication that there's - there is, like, this real shift, right? State AGs, federal agencies are also taking on Facebook. As I mentioned, at the FTC, they're investigating Amazon and Apple. And so you know, I think these cases, you know, the timeline of an antitrust lawsuit is, like, in the years, right? These are not going to address some of the problems people are raising anytime soon. But it shows, I mean, these companies are under pressure from all directions, and that pressure is just not going to ease up.

KEITH: As we close out the pod today, I want to go back to where we started, which is legislation. Deirdre, you talked about sort of surprising Republicans and Democrats getting together to try to do something related to Big Tech. Having a few people get together and talk and work on stuff is one thing. Do you see these bills becoming law? And do you - and are these bills the kind of things that will make the changes that at least some people in the base of both parties are demanding?

WALSH: I mean, I think it's hard to see that all of these bills would ultimately get passed by both chambers and signed by President Biden, I think, just given the pressure from the industry and the divisions inside both parties in terms of how far some of them go. But I do think elements of these proposals - to limit some of the powers, to promote some competition, to allow, you know, state attorneys generals to pursue actions against the companies - could move forward. I think that even the people that back them know that they're going to have to make some changes. There's going to be some negotiating. You know, we still don't know if there are 60 votes in the Senate for these proposals that have sort of largely been moving in the Democratically controlled House, but some version of these bills could end up on the president's desk in the near future.

KEITH: All right. Well, we will leave it there for today. Shannon, thank you so much for joining us, and please come back again.

BOND: Always a pleasure to be here. Thanks, guys.

KEITH: Awesome. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

WALSH: And I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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