Opinion | Technology

We need a Herbert Hoover to reel in Big Tech

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The radio industry roared onto the American scene a century ago, filling the nation's airwaves with music and news, but also with commercials, wave piracy, and technological chaos. Radio quickly affected all corners of society, changing the nature of the national conversation, how products were marketed, and speeding up cultural trends with its instantaneous reach. Radio no doubt helped make the Roaring Twenties roar. Virtually nobody listened to radio in 1920. By the late twenties, practically all Americans were tuned in.

Concerns grew for what this newfangled medium meant for the nation. Nobody really knew what kind of power was suddenly in the hands of the booming radio corporations. Into this setting rode President Coolidge's Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. Hoover had a background in engineering and was fascinated by the new medium. He was also concerned about the potential influence of the electronic media and its unregulated growth.

Hoover invited scientists, educators and public service leaders to a series of conferences to study radio and its influence. These conferences set the stage for Congress to pass the Radio Act of 1927 and establish a federal agency (today's Federal Communication Commission) to oversee electronic media. The foundation of the legislation was the "impact rationale," the notion that mysterious and powerful media could be so influential that the government should necessarily take a role in overseeing them on behalf of the public. Even today, radio and television broadcasters are mandated to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity.

The nation could use a Herbert Hoover today to take on Big Tech and to look out for the interests of average Americans.

Hoover's regulatory designs for the electronic media of that era were far from perfect, but at least there was some mechanism to confront technological forces on behalf of the citizenry's interests, rather than letting huge corporate interests throw their weight around with impunity.

Hoover's regulatory structure has withstood court scrutiny and the test of time. Regulations to referee political advertising on radio and TV, for example, remain today, along with controls regarding ownership. The public interest standard has been watered down, to be sure, but the FCC still rides herd on broadcasters, despite the waning influence of that industry.

Today, the Big Tech and social media giants rummage around in the nation's politics and culture, getting fat financially and running amok with consumer privacy. These giants were set up largely as public forums and got the government to shield them from legal liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Thus, these tech firms avoid the responsibility of being considered "publishers," as a newspaper or broadcast station would be. The problem is these Big Tech giants do act as publishers, making content decisions and anointing themselves as supreme deciders of who speaks and about what.

The Big Tech behemoths are exactly what the "impact rationale" was designed to corral.

Finding a regulatory framework with which to address Big Tech influence will be much more difficult than what Hoover faced in the early days of broadcasting, but somebody has to grow some guts and begin the process. Hoover, too, went into uncharted territory, unafraid to address the fast and furious influence of radio.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has issued an invitation for the next Hoover to emerge and take on Big Tech. Thomas wrote a concurring opinion as the Court recently tossed out a lower court ruling about then-President Trump blocking people on Twitter. He wrote about the unprecedented and "concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties." He went on to warn, "We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms."

The key for the Supreme Court will be to assess the First Amendment rights of Big Tech bullies to control and manage the flow of information in a democracy versus the rights of regular Americans to have a true public sphere in which citizens fuel the dialogue of the nation. Jumping into this fray is Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, who announced this month he is investigating how Big Tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter may be harming Indiana consumers through practices Rokita calls "abusive" and "unfair." Rokita, a Republican, is mostly concerned with the suppression of conservative points of view, of course, but his concern for the interests of tech consumers is noteworthy.

Rokita will need a bigger army to make any headway. One Attorney General from a Midwestern state will have trouble finding traction. But Justice Thomas has helped set the stage for the battle against Big Tech. He just needs to find enough would-be Hoovers to throw some punches, knowing they will probably be "de-platformed" in the process.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.