Domestic Affairs

The Big Tech Problem Part 1: Understanding the Issue

While conservatives have been worrying about Big Tech censorship for years now, these concerns became immediately relevant in the wake of the Capitol riots. In the aftermath of the violence, Big Tech launched a massive crackdown on those they viewed as responsible for organizing and encouraging the rioters. Twitter suspended over 70,000 accounts. Facebook banned prominent politicians including former president Donald Trump and, in a surprising move, even took action against Ron Paul, who had no involvement with the riots. Meanwhile, Amazon ended its business with Parler, an alternative social media platform with a characteristically light approach to content moderation, sending the platform offline.

First off, it is important to dispense with the idea that Big Tech is applying some neutral standard that these accounts happen to violate. This can be seen both in the persecution of right wing accounts who are in no way violating these platforms’ terms of service and in the toleration of non-conservative accounts that blatantly violate these terms. A prime example of the former is the continuing persecution of the Babylon Bee, a Christian satire site. In 2018, Facebook suspended their account after the site published an article titled “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine To Spin News Before Publication.” This is so obviously satirical that it defies belief that Facebook fact checkers considered it sincere. They also must have missed the “The Babylon Bee is Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire” banner. And, lest the reader still believes this was an honest mistake, the same thing happened again a year later. 

A more serious example is the Hunter Biden laptop scandal. In October 2020, The New York Post tweeted a story about the incriminating emails supposedly found on Hunter Biden’s laptop (although key details of the report remain unconfirmed), which Twitter then forced them to delete, pending review by its fact checkers. The hyperlinked phrase emphasizes that Facebook and Twitter had no reason to believe that the New York Post had fabricated its story, but merely blocked the story on the suspicion (or the hope) that it might be false. Meanwhile, these companies allowed blatantly false stories to spread unchecked when they were courtesy of left leaning media. There are plenty more examples of these double standards, such as Twitter banning conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and refusing to ban conspiracies about the one in 2016 or banning accounts encouraging right-wing violence and not banning those encouraging left-wing violence (but I think the point has been made).

Some might argue that this is a false equivalence, that the disinformation and violence promoted by the far right exceeds that of the far left. The claim could possibly be true, though it is doubtful it could be resolved one way or the other since the radicals of each party are different in nature, but there are still two reasons why this would not justify the crackdown. First, it is not obvious that censoring Ron Paul, the Babylon Bee, or the New York Post has anything to do with stopping right-wing violence. Second, if Big Tech is taking a harder line with disinformation in proportion to the harm it does, why do Russia, China, and Iran operate on Twitter with near impunity? While, to its credit, Twitter has recently cracked down on Russian and Iranian disinformation, the double standard is still plainly obvious. China actively uses social media to spread disinformation about its ongoing genocide of the Uyghurs in East Turkistan, which Twitter not only allowed, but was paid to promote. Surely, if one riot is enough to merit the suspension of 70,000 accounts, Twitter could find some time to not actively provide a totalitarian dictatorship’s cover for an ongoing genocide. Google is even worse, as it actively worked with China to censor information which the Chinese government disapproved. Way to live up to two thirds of your “don’t be evil” slogan, Google. Apple, not to be outdone, spent $90,000 lobbying against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which aims to crack down on companies using slave labor in their Chinese supply chains. And even when tech companies do censor extremist content worldwide, it is often a fig leaf for cracking down on anti-government sentiment in authoritarian countries. When Big Tech spends more time policing one small satire site than the people responsible for an actual genocide, any claims of a neutral standard become laughable. 

While their ire is currently directed against conservatives, many progressives are just as worried about the increasing power of Big Tech as their right-wing counterparts. Researchers found that actions taken by Facebook (that is, conscious decisions made by Facebook executives surrounding the election, as opposed to the platform itself) affected 0.6% of the vote in the 2010 midterm elections — nothing to sneeze at, but not the end of the world. But since then, the power of technology has grown to the point that researchers found that Google has the power to flip one in four elections worldwide (a more comprehensible explanation of the original study can be found here). And while progressives may currently be pleased with how these tech executives use their power to censor opinions they dislike, that may not always be the case. Unless you plan on always agreeing with every political opinion of Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerburg, and Jeff Bezos, you have an interest in ensuring dissenting opinions are not purged from social media despite your personal disagreement. 

This is to say nothing of data, the world’s most valuable commodity. Tech companies have made a business model out of harvesting vast amounts of data from their users and selling it to advertisers. Because of their access to vast user pools, tech companies have access to vast amounts of data, further increasing their power while drawing yet more bipartisan ire.

Many people of all political stripes, from Josh Hawley to Elizebeth Warren, are currently saying that Big Tech needs to be further regulated or perhaps even broken up entirely. Certainly, there is a broad bipartisan consensus that the government should take a heavier hand in dealing with Big Tech, particularly in regards to how the industry handles political matters. This, like so many bipartisan agreements, will take a bad problem and make it much worse. The last thing that should be done with the awesome power of Big Tech is bind it to the power of the government — this would be the inevitable result of increased regulation. 

Take, for example, Google’s alleged manipulation of its algorithm to hurt conservatives (the evidence for this is mixed). An apparently reasonable response might be to pass a law, such as the proposed Algorithmic Accountability Act that forces all search engines to have their algorithms approved by a government regulatory agency, presumably to ensure fairness. This reaction would worsen the existing problem for two reasons. First, while Google is a very powerful company, it is not a monopoly. Anyone who dislikes Google is free to use its competitors, all of whom use similar, but different, algorithms. From Bing to DuckDuckGo to the recently resurrected Ask Jeeves, there are alternatives to Google. While this does nothing to diminish the power Google does have, it prevents it from achieving anything like total control over all information. However, if government bureaucrats controlled Google’s algorithm, all of those other websites would presumably fall under the control of the same regulatory agency. The upshot is that there would very likely be only one “official” algorithm created by the government. Now, how fairly do you think bureaucrats, who as a class are even more biased against conservatives than tech companies, will use this power? And if, by chance, there is a scandal within the regulatory agency, who exactly would be able to stop them from tweaking the official algorithm to ensure as few people as possible heard of it?

Not only would the government be more likely to misuse the power of Big Tech, but it would be able to use it far more effectively and to far more nefarious ends. Mark Zuckerberg has a lot of influence over public information, but Joe Biden has a button that can reduce continents to ashes. And, while America theoretically could use this power for relatively benign purposes, (hold your laughter) other nations, emboldened by our example, will not. If we try to impose any sort of moderation neutrality standard on Big Tech, then we will be running a huge risk. Even presupposing that the current government listens to its better angels and does not abuse its power over Big Tech, the independence of Big Tech may be our last lifeline against future administrations with authoritarian intent. Big Tech can topple dictators (just ask Kadoffi, Ben Ali, or Mubarak) but under governmental control, officials could harness its power to deadly effect against democratic processes. 

There are other ideas to more strictly regulate Big Tech that do not put it directly under the control of the government. One idea is to repeal Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Section 230 protects tech companies from being held liable as the speaker or publisher of anything posted on their websites, and thus provides them legal immunity in civil cases concerning that speech. That is, if I post something on Facebook that is libel against you, you can only sue me, not Facebook. Under Section 230, tech companies can have their cake and eat it too — that is, they can moderate the content on their platforms, but do not face legal liability for anything they do or do not moderate. This evident problem poses a compelling case for repeal.

Reforming Section 230 is a great idea if you want to force tech companies to censor anything remotely foreshadowing a lawsuit. In a world in which Section 230 is significantly altered or repealed, you could sue a tech company for anything anyone says on their service. If someone leaves a bad book review on Amazon, the author could sue Amazon for libel. If someone posts a YouTube video alleging that a famous celebrity is a member of the Illuminati, then that celebrity could sue YouTube. Thus, for legal reasons, tech companies would have to censor anything that might result in a lawsuit. At best, this would mean that moderation guidelines got much stricter. At worst, if it proves impossible to moderate all of social media, the threat of liabilities might force tech companies to end the ability of users to post anything without pre-approval — which would spell the death of social media as we know it.

The final and perhaps worst idea currently bouncing around is “breaking up Big Tech.” While the idea sounds nice in theory, any attempt to break up Big Tech runs into a catch 22 — any attempt will either do nothing to alter the fundamental power of the companies, thus failing to reduce it significantly, or will reduce the companies’ power significantly at the cost of destroying its business model and hurting consumers. 

Most tech companies, and indeed the entire Internet, are based on the network effect. The network effect explains that the value of a particular service to you is influenced by how many other people use it. Your likelihood of joining a social media platform like Facebook increases significantly through your connection with other users. The more people you know on Facebook, the more likely you are to connect with a significant number of friends, and the more valuable the product becomes. Similar dynamics apply to almost all tech companies, but they are most stark in the context of social media. This principle is codified in Metcalfe’s Law.

Because their products become more valuable to each user based on the number of total participants, tech companies will naturally form near monopolies with two or three big networks dominating the industry. Personal preference for different networks among users ensures the industry will likely never consolidate into a single monopoly; however, neither will it fracture into a set of smaller companies. This is not because they are practicing unfair competition, but simply because a near monopoly with only a handful of big competitors is the most economically efficient way to organize the industry. The flip side of this is that once a company’s network begins to shrink, it will likely be replaced by a new monopoly, which may prevent companies from holding too much power for too long. 

Because a near monopolistic system is the most economically efficient structure for social media, any significant effort to break up social media will end up reducing its value to consumers. Imagine, for example, how any attempt to break up Facebook would proceed. Either it would keep all of its users, in which case it would remain as powerful as it ever was, or it would have to divide its users, in which case it would be rendered useless. Imagine the chaos if Facebook was broken up into two companies, one with users A-L and the other with users M-Z. Even services that are nominally different, like Facebook and Instagram, have become so technically entwined that separating them might kill one or both. While the problem would manifest itself differently with different companies, the fundamental problem is the same: a tech company gets its power from its network, which is also where it gets its usefulness. To kill one is to kill the other. 

The Internet age has ushered in a new age of convenience and interconnectedness. As we rely more and more on these tech companies, they will naturally gain more and more power over us. We rely on the Internet for information, connection, transportation, commerce, entertainment, communications, and more. It is all but inevitable that those who provide us those services, often at no cost to us, would inevitably gain some power over us. As Edmund Burke said, “It is a law of nature that whoever is necessary to what we have made our object, is sure, in some way, or in some time or other, to become our master.” That is the great trade off of the Internet. Unless we wish to return to the pre-Internet dark ages, we must find some way to live with the power that tech companies hold over our lives. 

Despite the inevitability of this power, there are still possible paths available to restrain Big Tech or at least to temper its effects. I will discuss these next steps in part two of this article.

2 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s