David French and his fellow peacetime conservatives are at it again, wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth as U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) takes a run at curtailing the immense power of Big Tech.
As French channels Neville Chamberlain, the fact is that unless the tech companies are forcefully confronted, now, in the immediate, our self-governing republic will be over in less than a generation and we will be ruled by a tech oligarchy.
French and his types sputter that this is outrageous, that government shouldn’t be involved in curtailing the harmful behavior of private companies. First, we would do well to remember that roughly 20 years ago, Washington, D.C. created this problem by carving out the Section 230 exemption for neutral platforms online. Only a fool would think that the tech companies are neutral platforms today. They have, by their own distinct decisions, become publishers and telecommunications companies: if you are making publishing decisions, if you are deploying broadband, if you are creating and streaming live content, you are a publisher or a telecommunications company, and sometimes both.
As these companies have changed of their own volition, Washington, D.C. has continued to live under the happy fiction that they are still nothing more than neutral platforms. What do policymakers not understand? Why are they so blind? Perhaps re-election campaign money, perhaps organizations like National Review being bought off by tech company donations—who can really say? There are all sorts of reasons why we’re in defiance of common sense, but it doesn’t remove the fact that we are.
Ask yourselves why these companies get to play by one set of rules while publishers and telecommunications companies are forced to play by others? They are in fact the same, though now the tech companies dwarf many of their fellow publishers and telecommunications companies yet still get to play by rules that favor them. This is in defiance of free-market principles: government isn’t supposed to pick winners and losers. It is supposed to create a fair playing field for everyone to compete according to the same rules and regulations so that the consumer benefits. Instead, we see it creating rigged games that allow monopolies to develop.
But this is also about what the internet actually is and who gets to decide what speech or content resides on the internet. Would Google, Facebook, and Amazon exist if there were no internet? Of course not—and I hesitate even to broach the question because it’s an absurd one. They didn’t create the internet; they are in effect, squatters having built on a foundation they did not build and do not own.
In many ways, you could argue no one really owns the internet. It is a public square, a public arena, much like the Agora and Forum of ancient times, only in digital form. So why do squatters on property not their own get to dictate anything on any level on that property? These companies were given a great deal of freedom to grow, to innovate products, and—while the Justice Department’s antitrust division pulled a Rip Van Winkle—become monopolies. To put it mildly, mistakes were made. Those mistakes need to be corrected.
If we do not correct our mistakes, our great rights of speech and assembly, offline and online, are in danger. Someone is going to be the final defender of our natural rights as codified in the Constitution. Do we want un-elected global monopolistic corporations—entities that may or may not consider themselves American companies, ruling you by algorithms? Do we want them limiting the flow of information in the online public arena, manipulating it to benefit themselves and their view of the world? Or do we want duly elected leaders of a constitutional republic defending our rights?