Attacks on tech companies are antithetical to American ideals

Attacks on tech companies are antithetical to American ideals
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There is a far cry between individuals with political beliefs and corporate bias. As congressional leaders, the attorney general, the president, and other political figures assail social media giants with the assistance of right-leaning media they either deliberately conflate the two or do so, perhaps ignorantly, to feed into anti-technology company fervor.

Regardless of the purpose, attacking technology companies will have disastrous consequences for speech rights and innovation. Congressional leaders, though they may not say so directly, intimate that technology companies should be regulated by the government. The Attorney General is convening state attorneys general to look into whether technology companies are suppressing speech on the basis of political belief.

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Right-leaning media recently released emails and videos from Google executives. The emails and videos detail the executives’ disappointment that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment Outsider candidates outpoll insider candidates MORE lost to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE in the 2016 election. They detail efforts Google undertook to promote the election, specifically focusing on driving out Latino voters.

 

The authors of the stories want the readers to infer that the executives’ political preferences seeped into the company’s products. The authors of the stories strongly suggest, and want the readers to believe, that the executives or Google’s other employees manipulated Search and other products to assist the Democrats and Hillary Clinton in 2016. The further inferences are that these manipulations are occurring to this day and every technology company is engaging in the same allegedly discriminatory behavior.

Such inferences are without actual evidence, though, and lack support when considering how products like Search work. In logical terms, the authors of the stories commit a causal fallacy known as non causa pro causa or “not the cause for a cause.” Individuals commit this fallacy when they reach a conclusion without enough evidence to do so.

The videos and emails released by right-leaning media prove one or two things: individual employees, including executives at Google, have left-leaning political beliefs and that individuals at Google tried to help increase voter turnout. The videos and emails do not prove Google manipulated its Search algorithm or assisted Democratic causes through any of its other products. Evidence of individual political bias cannot, and should not, be used as evidence of corporate bias.

At best, right-leaning media is suggesting that technology company executives should not have political views. At worst, the right-leaning media is calling for government intervention to ensure political neutrality. Either way, government leaders and media personalities are bullying technology companies to behave in a specific manner that benefits incumbent philosophy.

Both ignore a fundamental American principle: Free Speech. The Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees individuals and companies are free to express political views without government interference. Put another way, the First Amendment applies to government actions, not to individual or corporate speech.

Technology companies are private firms. Regardless of whether evidence exists as to actual, corporate bias influencing products, the companies are neither the government nor acting on behalf of the government. The First Amendment protects individuals and companies from the government, and conservative leaders should recognize this basic principle. After all, the same leaders that criticize Google and other social media platforms praised the Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Supreme Court cases.

While statistical evidence suggests that technology companies could influence elections or public opinion and while anecdotal evidence exists suggesting conservatives have been subject to discrimination on platforms, none of this evidence proves bias within technology companies’ platforms or algorithms.

Algorithms are not perfect. Technology companies are always looking for ways to improve the accuracy of their products. Google, for example, once emphasized website popularity as a factor when returning search results. Since 2015 or so, the company started emphasizing accurate and reliable results. Despite the best efforts, Google’s Search function still returns a number of irrelevant results or sites with inaccurate information. Discerning the truth and finding the results desired are (still) the responsibility of the individual conducting the search.

Regulations, or even the threat of regulations, tend to have a negative impact on innovation. If political leaders are threatening regulations, innovators do not know what the state of play will be if, and when, their product launches. Regulations increase compliance and costs. When regulatory costs increase, only those companies with a sizable enough budget can sustain the employees necessary to meet regulatory reporting requirements. Smaller and emerging companies disappear, do not appear at all, or reduce their potential customer base as they lack the resources to comply with the regulations.

Each online resource used today, from Google Search to Facebook and beyond, all started small. Facebook started as a small network for college students. Google started in Larry Page’s and Sergey Brin’s college dorms. Amazon started as an online book retailer.

Each of the major technology companies had the opportunity to succeed because the government did not heavily regulate the internet. Instead, the government took — and still largely takes — a light-touch regulatory approach focused on consumer harm.

There is hardly any substantive evidence establishing that technology companies integrate political bias into their products. Arguments they do integrate political bias and the inferences that the government should step in are antithetical to the principles upon which this nation was founded and would only serve to crimp America’s innovative spirit.

Jonathon Hauenschild, J.D., is director of the American Legislative Exchange Council Task Force on Communications and Technology.