The damnable religious inklings of the Big Tech libertarian
When approaching a problem of government excess, the conservative approach is straightforward: trim the fat, eliminate government restrictions and let the free market work. Moreover, both parties share that approach — after all, Presidents Kennedy and Reagan both slashed income taxes, and President Carter deregulated the airlines.
In contrast, what is the conservative solution when approaching a problem of corporate excess? Unfortunately, that is the problem conservatives now confront with Big Tech, the enormous corporations that control what Americans can do and see online with almost no government oversight.
To the libertarian, the answer is easy: Do nothing. Laissez-faire economics is effectively a religion requiring strict adherence. As Calvinists believe that sinners are in the hands of an angry God, libertarians believe that consumers are at the divine mercy of the “invisible hand.” They are the chosen few who dedicate their lives to the strict view that government – and only government – is a threat to the free market.
So it is no surprise that libertarians have been up in arms to combat bipartisan bills to rein in Big Tech, such as the Open App Markets Act and the EARN IT Act. But conservatives such as Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recognize that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” A hands-off approach to Big Tech may work for libertarian purists, but it fails to confront the real problems Americans are facing.
Take, for example, today’s app stores. Apple and Google control more than 95 percent of the mobile app store market. For years, they’ve had free rein to charge app developers up to a 30 percent tax for the privilege of competing in the mobile space — most small developers are paying these tech giants more than they contribute to the federal fisc.
To lock in that tax, Apple has prohibited apps from offering their own payment methods, infamously locking out Epic’s Fortnite when it dared to provide players with an alternative. Making it worse, Apple has agreed to the Chinese Communist Party’s request to censor free-speech apps that would allow repressed Uyghurs, persecuted Christians and pro-democracy advocates to communicate.
The libertarian response? A shrug.
But when Blackburn joined Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to introduce the Open App Markets Act? Outrage.
The claims are absurd, bordering on parody. Although the Act expressly lets consumers choose to sideload apps not available on an app store, libertarians claim it will reduce consumer choice — by making Apple’s app store slightly less distinct from Google’s. Although the Act lets alternative app stores compete for a consumer’s business, libertarians argue that allowing more app stores might somehow lead to higher consumer costs. And the libertarian response to more free-speech apps? That the senators might not like everything said on those apps.
Or consider the online market for child sexual exploitation. The International Labour Organization estimates that women and girls comprise 99 percent of victims of forced sexual exploitation. Worse, 25 percent of the victims are children. Significantly, online predators continually use social media sites to recruit and sell young girls for sex — 59 percent of recruitments (65 percent of which involve children) happened on Facebook alone. Yet, tech companies frequently use Section 230 as a sword to provide them with immunity from liability, even if accused of participating in child sex trafficking.
The libertarian response? Meh.
But when Graham introduced the EARN IT Act to crack down on Big Tech’s facilitation of child sexual exploitation? You guessed it, more outrage.
Again, libertarians engage in hyperbole, arguing that the EARN IT Act will somehow erode encryption, leaving us as exposed as Lady Godiva riding through Coventry. In reality, the EARN IT Act makes modest amendments to platforms’ Section 230 liability when they take a blind eye to users they know to be engaging in sex trafficking on their platforms.
It’s perfectly conservative to have a knee-jerk reaction to new government rules. But it’s indulging in a foolish consistency to stop there. When the fate of entrepreneurs, civil discourse and children are on the line, conservatives must face the facts and rethink their priors. When Big Tech respects the commands of a foreign censor more than the free voices of the American people, laissez-faire cannot be the answer.
Instead, conservative sentiments support reining in the power of Big Tech. And we are lucky that conservatives in the Senate are willing to reach across the aisle to forge sensible, bipartisan solutions. No matter how much the little statesmen protest, the philosophers scream and the divines rage.
Joel Thayer is the president of the Digital Progress Institute, a nonprofit seeking to bridge the policy divide between telecom and tech through bipartisan consensus.