New bipartisan bill to create January 6 commission has tech focus

Justin Hendrix / May 14, 2021

Today, Representatives Bennie Thompson, D-MS2 and John Katko, R-NY24, announced a new bipartisan proposal to establish a National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex. The bill resembles a previous proposal from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA12, but most significantly reduces the number of proposed Commissioners to 10 from 11, to be evenly appointed by Democrats and Republicans. It also amends how the Commission would decide to issue subpoenas- in the new draft, the Chair and Vice Chair- appointed by Democrats and Republicans, respectively- can agree to issue a subpoena, or the Commission can agree to do so by majority vote.

The new draft maintains language related to considering the social media platforms in the investigation. It says the Commission will consider "influencing factors that contributed to the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol and how technology, including online platforms, financing, and malign foreign influence operations and campaigns may have factored into the motivation, organization, and execution of the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol and targeted violence and domestic terrorism relevant to such attack."

Like the previous draft, it also says that Commissioners should have experience in technology and cybersecurity, as well as civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy.

It is unclear the extent to which social media companies will willingly cooperate with the Commission. For instance, Facebook refused a request from its own Oversight Board to provide information related to January 6; nevertheless, the Oversight Board instructed it to conduct an internal review on its role in propagating the false claims that incited the violent attack and facilitating the coordination of the parties that breached the Capitol. At a March 25th hearing that featured the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the executives were hesitant to take responsibility for any role the platforms may have played in the violence that day.

BuzzFeed recently reported it had obtained an internal Facebook report that confirmed that far from succeeding in containing false voter fraud claims and the Stop the Steal movement that emerged after election, “Facebook failed to stop a highly influential movement from using its platform to delegitimize the election, encourage violence, and help incite the Capitol riot.”

Results from a variety of research projects and investigations are beginning to produce insights into what University of Washington researcher Kate Starbird has described as "participatory disinformation" campaign that took advantage of the social media platforms to propagate false voter fraud claims and motivate individuals to violence.

One issue with the bill is that it establishes a December 31st, 2021 deadline for the Commission to wrap its work, a date that has not changed since prior drafts. If the deadline remains in the final draft, it may hamper the ability of the Commission to contend with any legal complications in its requests for information.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...