The Courts

Fight Over Big Tech Gets Personal Among Conservatives

Debate likely to continue under Biden

Charles Koch
Charles Koch / Getty Images

A new lawsuit is inflaming tensions on the right between the powerful, business-friendly Koch political network and a rising coalition of populist conservatives pushing for a crackdown on Silicon Valley.

The lawsuit seeks emails and other communications between staffers at a Commerce Department tech agency and outside policy gurus who support the Trump administration's campaign to reign in social media behemoths like Facebook. Some of those targeted even include Koch allies who say the well-heeled and influential network is trying to scare partners into silence.

At the heart of the dispute is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects companies like Twitter from lawsuits over content that appears on their platforms. Many Republicans, including President Trump, believe the shield should be amended or rescinded, citing bias on the part of social media giants. Pro-business elements like the Koch network say that reform would threaten innovation and free speech and that they're waging a determined fight against any changes.

"They are so ideological about this particular issue," said the Conservative Partnership Institute's Rachel Bovard, who is targeted in the lawsuit. "It's a shot across the bow to people that they work with."

The debate betrays the growing personal acrimony developing among Republicans over big tech. The Koch network commands tens of millions of dollars and serves as an important gatekeeper for conservative Washington. Its hard-knuckled approach to the Section 230 fight suggests a new level of bitterness that may divide Republicans well into the Biden administration.

Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF), a political group bankrolled by libertarian powerbroker Charles Koch, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in federal court seeking communications from Adam Candeub and Nathan Simington, two recently departed staffers at a Commerce Department agency that helped craft President Trump's campaign against social media behemoths.

The lawsuit demands correspondences that mention either Section 230 or certain conservatives who support the administration's anti-tech efforts, including Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center, Mike Davis of the Internet Accountability Project, and the Conservative Partnership Institute's Bovard.

Bovard is also a fellow at Defense Priorities, a Koch-funded military-restraint group. Davis works with Koch groups on a range of issues, including judicial confirmations and criminal-justice reform.

Releasing the requested records could foment conflict on the right, so the incoming Biden administration will have little reason to resist AFPF's lawsuit. That's an especially sore point for certain conservatives who say Koch groups are all too willing to work with Democrats to punish conservatives.

"The Koch network has gone through a strange leftwing transformation under President Trump," Davis told the Free Beacon. "They've partnered with George Soros on foreign policy, they've funded Democrat congressional candidates, and now they proudly identify as watchdogs that target conservatives on behalf of Google."

An amended version of the original suit requests communications "relating to Section 230, the Federal Communications Commission, and other search terms" without mentioning particular names. Bovard said the partial retreat did not assuage her concerns.

Before turning to federal court, AFPF first filed a FOIA request with the Commerce Department tech agency. Lawyers for the Koch group said the agency has dragged its feet on document production and redacted certain records without explanation, which isn't permissible. They also said that their request covers all mediums of communication, including texts or IMs, but the agency has only released emails.

"This lawsuit is about government transparency and the public’s right to understand the rationale behind Commerce’s efforts to amend Section 230, a law that has played a pivotal role in America’s position as a global leader in tech," AFPF lawyer Eric Bolinder told the Washington Free Beacon. "AFPF amended this lawsuit to remove the names of private individuals and groups to make it clear it is not about personal attacks. This lawsuit is focused on the merits of policy and ensuring the internet remains open to free expression."

Bolinder also said that an initial production of documents showed Candeub forwarded government emails to a private account.

"The limited documents [the agency] has disclosed from our FOIA contain numerous redactions, raising serious concerns about what NTIA is withholding," Bolinder went on. "Mr. Candeub's decision to forward government emails to his private mail account only heightens this concern—and the need for full transparency."

The Senate confirmed Simington as an FCC commissioner earlier this month. Candeub left Commerce for a senior post at the Justice Department.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. The matter is Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Department of Commerce in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.