A Conservative Path Forward on Big Tech | Opinion

This is a big moment for Big Tech. A House antitrust committee will soon question the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google about their market dominance. The Senate will hold a hearing this week on reforming Section 230—a law that confers special protections on social media companies. And today, the Trump administration, citing concerns that large online platforms like Twitter and YouTube are censoring speech in ways that do not align with their public representations, will file a petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asking the agency to clarify the scope of Section 230's protections.

Washington is focused on ways to rein in Big Tech.

For many Democrats, the path forward is clear. They want to break up Big Tech. They want a moratorium on mergers. And they want social media companies to censor even more online speech.

For many Republicans, this debate is about our path forward. Do we hold Big Tech accountable or do we sit on our hands and do nothing? In many ways, this discussion is a microcosm for a broader debate taking place within the conservative movement—one that reflects shifting views about the role of government on issues as varied as trade and the economy to national security.

As to Big Tech, there are some on the Right who see no problems worth addressing or believe that any form of government-imposed accountability would do more harm than good. We must accept the status quo, they say, or reject the limited government, free market principles that conservatives stand for.

This is a false choice, of course. And this framing ignores the ways in which Big Tech has accumulated and now wields its power. A handful of corporations with state-like influence now shape everything from the information we consume to the places where we shop. These corporate behemoths are not merely exercising market power; they are abusing dominant positions. They are not simply prevailing in the free market; they are taking advantage of a landscape that has been skewed—by the government—to favor their business models over those of their competitors. Crony capitalism is not free enterprise.

If you are a small business for which an online presence is table stakes in today's economy, you have no choice but to accept the terms dictated to you by Big Tech. Take Google, which manipulates search results to benefit large, established firms at the expense of smaller competitors. Or consider how Google recently leveraged its dominant position in the online advertising market to effectively shut down the comment section of The Federalist, a conservative online publication.

When Congress conferred special benefits on Internet companies in the 1990s, it did so, as Section 230 states, "to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists." Has it worked out that way?

In the face of this unprecedented concentration of power and market distortion, an ostrich-like response to Big Tech is not the path forward. Instead, conservatives should work towards change in three main areas: transparency, accountability and user empowerment.

Social media smartphone apps
Social media smartphone apps DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images

Start with transparency. Today, Big Tech offers a black box. After Google manipulates search results, a small business can see its web traffic drop precipitously overnight for no apparent reason, potentially flipping its outlook from black to red. On Twitter, social media posts are left up or taken down, accounts suspended or permanently banned, without any apparent consistency. Out of the blue, YouTube can demonetize someone who risked his capital and invested his labor to build an online business.

There is a "light-touch" solution here. At the FCC, we require Internet service providers (ISPs) to comply with a transparency rule that provides a good baseline for Big Tech.

Under this rule, ISPs must provide detailed disclosures about any practices that would shape Internet traffic—from blocking to prioritizing or discriminating against content. Any violations of those disclosures are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FCC and FTC should apply that same approach to Big Tech. This would ensure that all Internet users, from entrepreneurs to small businesses, have the information they need to make informed choices.

Or take accountability. When Big Tech represents that, for all of their content moderation practices, they do not engage in partisan, political takedowns, they should be held accountable for those representations. This is where the FTC should step up its scrutiny of Big Tech. It can examine Internet companies and their commitments through the lens of the agency's unfair or deceptive business practices authority, and it should start doing so with a vigor commensurate with the power wielded by those corporations.

The third guidepost for reform should be user empowerment. Section 230 itself codifies "user control" as an express policy goal, and it encourages Internet platforms to provide tools that will "empower" users to engage in their own content moderation. As the FCC takes up the administration's Section 230 petition, we should do so mindful of how we can return power to Internet users over their online experiences.

One idea is to let consumers turn off the bias filters. Right now, Facebook and Twitter bring in outside "fact checkers" (read: political actors) to provide their takes on your posts. Why not let the consumer decide? If you want MSNBC, Fox News or any other entity to filter your feed, click that box. If you want an unfiltered, Wild West timeline, choose that option.

On Big Tech, conservatives in Washington should stand for more than nothing. There is a path forward that promotes transparency, accountability and user empowerment.

As William F. Buckley, Jr. famously wrote, "I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors"—and, I would add, not to Big Tech.

Brendan Carr, a Republican, is a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.