Conservatives Are Walking Into a Trap on Antitrust | Opinion

As recently as a few years ago, most Republicans were unwilling to prevent private tech companies from censoring their users. In 2017 and 2018, when the GOP had unified control of government, nothing was done to regulate Big Tech. Even though Twitter and other platforms were hard at work deplatforming alt-right figures and Pizzagate conspiracists, most conservatives failed to see in this the slippery slope that would ultimately lead to censoring mainstream conservatives.

We now know better. What started as deplatforming hate speech and racists has led directly to silencing campaigns against views that fall afoul of liberal orthodoxy. And in response to expanded Silicon Valley censorship, it's now become common for Republicans to not just support anti-censorship rules but strict antitrust legislation to punish Big Tech.

This, however, is a mistake. The laws currently under consideration not only do nothing to address internet censorship, but may make it worse. By wanting to "do something" in this area, conservatives are in the process of failing to address the concerns of their voters—while giving Left-wing activists what they want.

In the past several weeks, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Open App Markets Act and the American Choice and Innovation Online Act. These bills are advancing with support from Republicans like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, in addition to almost all Democrats on the Committee. Neither bill makes any mention of free speech or censorship. Instead, they regulate how tech companies treat smaller services that use their platforms.

The bills' conservative supporters suggest that this will somehow end deplatforming. While acknowledging the laws do not address free speech directly, Rachel Bovard of the Conservative Partnership has argued that because the large platforms "are changing the nature of expression," supporting antitrust laws is a "Put Up or Shut Up" moment for Republicans. The American Principles Project and other populist conservative groups signed a letter in support of the Open Apps Markets Act on the grounds that the law would have prevented the censorship of Parler, and Ted Cruz voted for both bills in Committee explicitly because that he believes they would protect free speech apps.

But when Cruz introduced an amendment to prevent the banning of apps based on political bias, it was voted down. Moreover, the Open App Markets Act allows Google and Apple to discriminate against apps in order to promote "security, or digital safety." The American Choice and Innovation Online Act has similar language.

social media censorship

What exactly is "digital safety"? Currently, the term has no legal definition. But it is used by activist organizations to refer to speech that would be constitutionally protected in the United States. For example, the World Economic Forum (better known as Davos) released a white paper on "Advancing Digital Safety" that cites hate speech, COVID disinformation, and conspiracy theories around January 6 as top threats. Looking at industry standards, almost every single major tech platform, including Apple, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, uses "safety" or "trust and safety" as an excuse for content moderation.

If antitrust legislation protects free speech, conservatives might ask themselves why Democrats who support censorship are also fans of antitrust.

Conservative tech critics view internet censorship as something being pushed top down by monopolists imposing their own political preferences on the masses. While this view has some truth to it, it obscures the larger picture, which is that Big Tech has been pushed around by the media, activist organizations, and—increasingly—Democratic Party politicians, including sponsors of the two antitrust bills under consideration.

Maria Cantwell, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has demanded the Federal Trade Commission investigate Big Tech for not censoring enough disinformation. Amy Klobuchar, who is the primary sponsor of the Choice and Innovation Act, has introduced legislation to remove Section 230 immunity for platforms that don't censor "health misinformation." Richard Bumenthal, a sponsor of the Open App Markets Act, has also demanded increased online censorship.

If passed, these bills will be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, led by Lina Khan, who has argued that increased antitrust enforcement would harm a Big Tech business model that "incentivizes the dissemination of disinformation." One of Khan's senior advisors is Meredith Walker, who has called the Daily Caller a "hate site."

Populists often argue that the right needs to be more willing to embrace state power in order to achieve its goals. Wherever one comes down on this debate, by supporting current antitrust legislation as written, the GOP is indeed increasing state power, but it will likely be wielded by left-wing bureaucrats and trial lawyers in the service of silencing conservative voices.

Being willing to recognize a problem is not the same thing as knowing how to solve it. Whatever conservatives decide to do about internet censorship, they should not fool themselves into believing that the answer is antitrust legislation supported by the same politicians who are most eager to suppress their speech.

Richard Hanania is the president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.

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