Government compulsion: Big Tech’s latest red herring
As both President Biden in his State of the Union and Gov. Sarah Huckabee-Sanders (R-Ark.) in her response noted, Big Tech’s control over our information and digital markets is undeniable.
The Twitter Files, discovery from various state cases and now the Facebook Files all show what we have long assumed — that the companies have all the discretion but no accountability. This is especially true when platforms favor certain political content over others. Both parties seem poised to address the issue. Even Biden and former Attorney General Bill Barr have called for significant reforms.
Big Tech, however, has a play for this — use government compulsion (i.e., jawboning) as a convenient red herring to distract Congress from pursuing meaningful proposals that could address their monopolies. In fact, a leaked email from a noted Big Tech lobbyist said as much.
This doesn’t mean that government jawboning isn’t occurring. Robby Soave at Reason reports that the government put “pressure” on Meta’s Facebook platform to curate information concerning COVID-19. Apple, too, has succumbed to political pressure to take content down, albeit not from our government. Apple argued that the Chinese government forced it to degrade its encryption measures in China and forced the company to serve as the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship arm.
But, again, limiting the issue to government pressure just doesn’t add up. It makes more sense that Big Tech companies welcomed taking positions and input from the political party with which they most strongly identify ideologically.
It’s no secret that the largest tech companies tend to favor Democrats over Republicans. As CNBC reported, Alphabet (owner of Google) gave $5.4 million (amounting to 88 percent of its political contributions) to Democrats as of 2020. Similarly, 84 percent of Apple’s political contributions went to Democrats; 77 percent of both Meta’s and Amazon’s donations went to Democrats.
To be fair, neither the Biden administration nor Big Tech were hiding the ball on their coordination. Biden’s former Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, said very publicly that the administration was “regularly making sure that social media companies were aware of the latest narratives, dangerous to public health…” specifically related to information about COVID-19 vaccines.
What’s more, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed on Joe Rogan’s podcast that the FBI advised Facebook about looking for Russian misinformation. According to Zuckerberg, this outreach prompted the social-media giant to “decreased the distribution” of the Hunter Biden laptop story because, as Zuckerberg puts it, that story “fit the pattern” presumably given to Facebook by the agency.
The Twitter Files demonstrate, rather, that Big Tech made most of these political decisions on their own. For example, the Twitter Files do not show any government involvement for locking White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany out of her Twitter account for citing the New York Post’s Hunter Biden story just 20 days before the 2020 election. Even in the Reason article, there’s no real evidence that Facebook was forced into doing the government’s bidding. Relatedly, there’s no apparent government intervention prompting Google, Apple and Amazon to kick off free-speech apps such as Parler.
We can all agree that any administration, Democratic or Republican, should be condemned and prohibited from making any attempt to use these companies’ digital public squares to silence dissidents. We must shed more light on the opaque relationship Big Tech companies have with governments (both foreign and domestic). It’s why recently introduced legislation preventing such occurrences is encouraging.
Both sides of the aisle should be careful not to get distracted by this, however, and instead continue to address Big Tech’s centralized control over information. Even though Big Tech favors Democrats now, most Big Tech companies are unapologetic about being able to turn on any political constituency at any moment. In its oral argument in NetChoice v. Paxton, Twitter boasts that it has the power to “turn around and ban all pro-LGBT speech for no other reason than its employees want to pick on members of that community.”
It follows that resolving the government issue doesn’t really address the core concerns with Big Tech entirely. Whether it’s taking down apps from app stores, kicking websites off cloud networks or using algorithms to promote agendas, these companies haven’t needed any governmental push. Frankly, the way a lot of these so-called Twitter- and Facebook-files read makes it seem like government officials were more like invited guests than a jawboning gestapo.
No amount of jawboning can stop them from doing what they already want to do, but antitrust and Section 230 reforms can. Congress should not engage in Big Tech’s self-created crisis regarding government compulsion. Instead, it should put forward real reforms that can address their herculean grip on our digital markets and public squares.
In short, yes, we must prohibit the government from using tech platforms as a censorship tool. But we need to put market guardrails on them to complete the circle.
Joel Thayer is president of the Digital Progress Institute and a tech and telecom attorney based in Washington, D.C.
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