When political opposites like Senator Josh Hawley and Bernie Sanders are both railing against the power of Big Tech, there may be real bipartisan momentum toward reining in the giants of the tech industry. Now, amid the calls for new regulations on privacy, antitrust issues, and alleged political bias, two experienced conservative operatives have formed an advocacy group to challenge Big Tech.
The organization, called the Internet Accountability Project, is the brainchild of Mike Davis, who helped lead last year’s fight to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
As a 501(c)(4), the IAP is a “dark-money” group, meaning it isn’t required to disclose who’s funding it. Davis wouldn’t tell VICE News, beyond describing its funders as a “coalition of populist organizations and individuals who are working on this project.” Its strategic partners include several right-leaning organizations, including Publius Lex, a conservative legal nonprofit, and the Media Research Center, which describes its aim as “neutralizing leftist bias in the news media and popular culture.”
IAP’s mission is “to lend a conservative voice to the calls for federal and state governments to rein in Big Tech.”
In an interview with VICE News, Rachel Bovard, a senior adviser to the group and experienced GOP Senate staffer, lamented the way the tech industry “controls” conversation and how large these companies have grown. She said it will fight Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter in three areas: privacy, antitrust, and Section 230, the part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that protects online publishing platforms from liability for what users may post.
Bovard said the group will offer political “cover” and support to conservative lawmakers — people like Hawley and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), two members of the Judiciary Committee who have expressed concern about Big Tech. She said IAP will also leverage the media to rally opposition to the industry.
“We don't want to live in a world where we can't talk about this because you know folks on the right or the left say no that's out of bounds,” she told VICE News. “This is all in bounds and we want to be able to support legislators who want to have actually thoughtful discussions about these issues.”
Decrying the power of tech giants has become popular among politicians of both parties. A group of state attorneys general have formally launched an antitrust investigation into Google and Facebook.
The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division also announced in July that it will “review” the practices of “market-leading” online platforms. Tech executives have become regulars on Capitol Hill, where they endure bipartisan grillings.
IAP’s website echoes the most common conservative anti-tech talking points, calling the companies “aristocrats and elitists and they don’t even know it.” Bovard concedes that “bias” is a leading motivator for right-leaning users of social media. She says she’s concerned about “companies who, you know, can enforce rules against conservatives that they don't necessarily enforce against other folks. ”
But she also said IAP will fight the companies’ strangleholds on their respective marketplaces. She said she expects backlash from traditional conservatives who will bristle at the IAP’s anti-corporate messaging, and she said some of those critics are bankrolled by Big Tech themselves.
“We don't want sort of this nanny state that says what we can and cannot do,” she said. “However I don't think that starting this conversation automatically leads to that outcome. I think there is a legitimate conversation to be had as to whether or not our public policy has kept up with the pace of innovation.”
Bovard insists the group is bipartisan, though she wouldn’t say which Democrats or Independents, if any, it’s working with so far. And it may be hard for IAP to coax any Democrats into working with a group led by Davis. He clerked for Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch and later assisted with the confirmation of both him and Kavanaugh.
During the bitter fight over Kavanaugh’s confirmation process, Davis lead the Republican team of lawyers on the Senator Judiciary Committee, and recently has been busy defending Kavanaugh in the media.
Davis also runs another organization, the Article III Project, designed to continue filling the federal judiciary with young, conservative judges. He told the New York Times that when it comes to keeping the courts conservative, he wants to “take off the gloves, put on the brass knuckles and fight back.”
Still, when asked if the group would partner with Senators Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, who’ve both criticized the monopolistic powers Amazon and other tech giants, Bovard said the IAP would be open to it.
“We may not agree on what the solution is,” she said, “but we have a genuine bipartisan agreement on the fact that we need to be talking about this and this needs to get more transparency and more light on these topics sort of in the public space.”
Cover: Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos addresses the audience during a keynote session at the Amazon Re:MARS conference on robotics and artificial intelligence at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada on June 6, 2019. (Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)