Bootleggers and Baptists: How left and right are aligning to regulate 'big tech'

Bootleggers and Baptists: How left and right are aligning to regulate 'big tech'
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What does the future of technology companies have in common with an old economic concept?

The economic concept is called “bootleggers and Baptists.” The general idea behind the concept is that two groups, with apparently nothing in common, both push for the regulation of a particular industry. In the case of bootleggers and Baptists, the regulations they pushed for were laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sundays. Both groups stood to gain. Baptists from an ostensibly altruistic motive sought to improve the morals of society. Bootleggers, who engaged in the illicit sale of alcohol, saw an opportunity to increase clientele.

Today, instead of alcohol sales it is technology companies, or “big tech.” The bootleggers and Baptists are politicos from the left and right. That is to say, the interests of the left and right are aligning in such a way either to regulate big tech or break up the companies deemed to be too large.

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For those who doubt this proposition, both former presidential advisor Steve Bannon and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersDe Blasio headed to Iowa to speak at political fundraiser Yes, spills happen — but pipelines are still the safest way to move oil Why sexual harassment discussions include lawmakers talking about Bill Clinton’s past MORE (I-Vt.) believe big tech should be regulated like “public utilities.” Arguments are mounting in political and academic circles supporting government anti-trust lawsuits against the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

 

The left fears the size and potential of big tech. Leftist politicos see large corporations, including big tech, exploiting Americans. They fear big tech’s market share and power. They see big tech companies developing robotic technologies and hiring skilled immigrants, taking jobs away from Americans. And just as salient, big tech has managed, through spending money, to gain influence in leftist political circles—influence that some leftists do not like.

On the right, concerns have long existed that big tech is both the gatekeeper to the internet, which has become the modern public forum, and that the companies lean too far to the political left. The right views efforts to define and remove “fake news” as thinly veiled attempts to censor conservative speech. During the spring of 2016 sources from the right and left, including Gizmodo, Fox News, and the National Review reported on Facebook’s alleged suppression of conservative speech.

Recent events have done nothing but confirm the right’s belief. Right-leaning politicos do not see the firing of James Damore as an employment decision, but as Google’s effort to create ideological homogeny within its organization. On the one hand, Google wants people to believe it respects all viewpoints. Yet, when an employee posts a memo that fails to reflect its political views to a “t”, Google fires that employee.

While the right believes racism and white supremacists are vile, they view Google, GoDaddy, and Cloudflare’s decision to end services to The DailyStormer as an abandonment of principles of content neutrality. Even the CEO of Cloudflare, when announcing the decision to end the business relationship with the DailyStormer, laid the foundation for a discussion about whether big tech should start regulating content on the internet.

Google’s recent, successful, efforts pressuring a center-left think tank to fire a scholar who published an opinion contrary to Google’s interests further the right’s belief that big tech discriminates against conservative speech.

Right-leaning websites are reporting that Google is threatening to cut off ad revenue to their sites unless those sites remove content unfriendly to Google. Google’s subsidiary, YouTube, also has a history of flagging center-right videos, with no apparent inappropriate content, as “restricted,” which reduces both the potential viewership and ad revenue.

Google is the world’s most dominant search engine, for example. Data suggests that over 81 percent of all desktop searches use Google, with its next closest competitor, Microsoft’s Bing, logging just over seven percent. Similarly, Google has a significant edge with mobile platforms. Again, the data suggests Google’s share of searches through mobile devices is over 57 percent while its next closest competitor, Safari, logs just over 33 percent of the searches.

Because of big tech’s ability to eliminate entire streams of revenue, the left and right have started agreeing on potential ways to regulate it. As mentioned above, there is some agreement that big tech companies should be viewed as monopolies, or “anti-competitive.” As “monopolies” or companies engaged in “anti-competitive practices,” the reasoning continues, the federal government should regulate them, fine them, or break them up.

Big tech companies are large, no doubt about it. They are large because they offer products and services people want. They are large because they innovate. The left and the right are aligning, like bootleggers and Baptists, to regulate big tech. If the politicos are successful, such regulations will fundamentally impact our economy and the connected environment we have come to understand and love.

Jonathon Paul Hauenschild, J.D., is the director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Task Force on Communications & Technology.