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GOP Hollowly Threatens To 'Shut Down' Telecom Companies For Cooperating With Legal January 6 Inquiries

DATE POSTED:September 2, 2021

If you've spent any real time digging into Trump GOP era tech policies, you've probably noticed they're a jumbled mess of contradictions and inconsistencies, cloaked in a lot of performative propaganda. The same party that thought net neutrality (the FCC holding telecom giants vaguely accountable) was a government hellscape, pivoted on a dime to try and force the FCC into regulating social media companies. The same GOP that whines incessantly about "big tech" via performative populism, routinely runs for the hills any time somebody actually tries to rein in corporate power or implement genuine antitrust reform.

Of course in the mainstream press (in this context usually The New York Times, Axios, The Washington Post, Politico, and friends), the inconsistency of the GOP's policy platforms is never really explained. It's part of the "view from nowhere" disease that has infected mainstream U.S. political coverage, where everything is portrayed in a "he said, she said" frame of perfect symmetry, leaving your readers completely uncertain where the truth actually lies. It's driven by a fear of upsetting sources and advertisers, and results in a media that simply refuses to call a duck a duck (or bullshit bullshit) when urgently required.

That bubbled up again this week as the GOP bristled at the fact the committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob has been asking telecom and tech companies to retain relevant communications between lawmakers and organizers. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Signal, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile have all received requests. As Mike has noted there are concerns that the requests are worryingly broad, including troves of internal communications at the companies' themselves.

At the same time, many of the requests (especially those looking at the text message and call logs from telecom companies) are perfectly legitimate, and if investigators can find text messages showing coordination between the violent Capitol-assaulting mob, its organizers, and the GOP, that kind of seems arguably important in terms of a functioning democracy and avoiding even worse scenarios down the road. After all, guys like Jim Jordan are nervously babbling in interviews like this one for a reason:

Ohio's @Jim_Jordan confirms to me:

“I spoke with [Trump] on Jan. 6th."

Before, during or after attack?

“I spoke with him that day, after? I think after. I don't know if I spoke with him in the morning or not. I just don't know...I don't know when those conversations happened.”

— Taylor Popielarz (@TaylorPopielarz) July 28, 2021

Several GOP members seem particularly nervous about text messages and phone logs, and are now taking to television threatening to "shut down" telecom companies if they cooperate with the probe in any way whatsoever:

Greene: These telecommunication companies, if they go along with this, they will be shut down. That’s a promise

— Acyn (@Acyn) September 1, 2021

This is, of course, utterly nonsensical, zero calorie, idiot theater. Congress as a whole worships the ground companies like AT&T walk on, and the GOP in particular has never stood up to AT&T on any issue of substance. Ever. Why? Because AT&T's extremely politically powerful (thanks in large part to its cozy relationship with the NSA), and a major GOP campaign contributor. There's legitimately a 0.0% chance that AT&T or Verizon see any meaningful penalties for cooperating with legal requests, especially from a party with a thirty year track record of mindlessly kissing telecom's ass.

The GOP for years has opposed privacy protections and embraced expansive government surveillance. And its entire brand has been built on the worship of purportedly "free markets" without the imposition of government intervention. And the entire Trump GOP has been to take "political norms" in the alleyway and beat the ever loving piss out of them, repeatedly. Yet this morning we saw the Rupert Murdoch editorial pages pretending to care about both telecom privacy and (gasp!) "political norms":

From @WSJopinion: The Jan. 6 committee wants to subpoena GOP phone records. This is a violation of political norms that Democrats will come to regret, writes The Editorial Board.

— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) September 2, 2021

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy also took to Twitter to threaten to shut down private companies for complying with legal information requests (you know, "free markets!" and all that):

My statement on Democrats asking companies to violate federal law:

— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) August 31, 2021

Nobody's violating federal law. It's a valid inquiry into an extremely dangerous, precedent setting event. And "federal law" on privacy is weak in the first place largely courtesy of forty years of DC policy choices. There's just layers of gibberish here, particularly the pretense that the GOP gives two flying shits about rampant government surveillance or "political norms." If Congress is doing something illegal that violates privacy, anyone can sue to stop them. Instead, the GOP is having yet another toddler moment, engaging in hollow bullying to shut down private businesses they know they'll never actually follow through on.

As Ken White notes, one could argue that this kind of behavior, while likely not prosecutable, qualifies as corruption and obstruction of justice:

This may not be criminal, but it is a colorable law school exam question for obstruction of justice, worth the analysis.

— OneHitPopehat (@Popehat) August 31, 2021

Granted, this most likely ends (like the mythical GOP support for "antitrust reform") with zero penalties for telecom companies, because there's nothing to penalize. Still, letting a bunch of mindlessly ambitious authoritarians try to overthrow elections with zero meaningful penalty sets a clearly dangerous precedent. As does threatening companies for complying with perfectly valid legal requests.

Shutting down AT&T is a non-starter, so what is the GOP going to do to "punish" telecom companies? Re-establish the FCC's ability to hold telecom monopolies accountable? Stop blocking efforts to impose broadband privacy rules? Finally start holding them accountable for fraud? Rein in their overly enthusiastic participation in our domestic surveillance program? Force AT&T and Verizon to close up shop and go home? Give me a break.

It's just empty-headed bullying by GOP lawmakers clearly nervous about what these requests could reveal about one of the dumbest yet most dangerous days in recent U.S. history. And yet courtesy of DC beltway press' "he said, she said" framing of the situation, a reader walks away from most terrible coverage of this dispute with the impression that the GOP's position here could be perfectly reasonable. ("Bob the authoritarian says a valid investigation into him is illegal, but his colleague Jane says that's not true. Who's right? Who knows?" ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

U.S. press outlets need to dramatically improve their ability to call out bullshit or this stuff is all going to get significantly worse. Bad faith bullshit only works when you refuse to identify it as clearly bad faith bullshit. Corruption thrives when your press is too timid to clearly call it corruption when required. And by and large the nation's biggest media outlets continue to fail painfully at the task of highlighting the GOP's hard right authoritarian swerve, or the bullshit faux-populist propaganda they're using to make it happen.