The Time Is Now to Rein in Big Tech | Opinion

When we think about Big Tech on the American Right, the question very often distills into a binary framing: How can you be a "good" conservative and believe there is a role for the rest of society, or even the government, in the Big Tech debate? Shouldn't we, as "good conservatives," just step aside and wait for the market to self-correct?

This framing, however, ignores the wide-ranging and distorting impacts Big Tech has, not just on the market economy—particularly on small business—but on speech, behavior, elections and individual privacy. These are all things conservatives care about.

In today's economy and culture, everything is tech. Nearly every business—even the low-tech ones—must now have a website and offer online ordering. To be remotely competitive, they must have database management and spend considerable sums on digital advertising. And to reach consumers where they are, this means doing business with Google and Facebook. Of the $88 billion spent on digital advertising in 2018, over 90 percent of it went to these two companies alone.

Simply "opting out" is no longer an option if you're a business trying to reach consumers in the digital space—particularly as Google bans ad competitors from its search platform, Chrome, and independent ad tech firms are rapidly going out of business. Updates to Google's search algorithms, meanwhile, can make or break businesses that rely on search-generated user traffic.

Big Tech has undoubtedly made businesses far more efficient. It has also set itself up as a bottleneck, middleman and toll collector for huge swaths of the economy. But it's not just about business. The power of these corporations over our private lives is unprecedented.

Private companies now track our locations while denying they do. They have access to the full health care records of up to 50 million Americans without their knowledge or consent. Google has used the COVID-19 pandemic to harvest even more data on our children. Numerous tech firms facilitate the surveillance state that suppresses minorities in authoritarian regimes.

Google reads our emails—and Facebook reads our texts. Even outside of using Google search and Facebook, the companies are still tracking you across the web and on all of their various platforms. And, of course, all these companies willingly turned over our photos, emails and personal documents to the government—at least until they got caught.

Tech algorithms compel our behavior by controlling what we see. A deep investigation into Google by The Wall Street Journal demonstrated not only that the search algorithm was, on at least one occasion, tweaked to favor big businesses, but that certain search term results were suppressed for searches on "abortion" and immigration."

Ninety percent of the world's population uses Google, which magnifies the political and economic consequences of its corporate decisions—particularly when the company misleads users about the autonomous nature of the information it presents.

Facebook, for its part, recently acknowledged its digital power over elections in a leaked internal memo. "So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected?" asked Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth. "I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. ...He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I've ever seen from any advertiser." Bosworth went on to note that the company has "the tools available to us to change the outcome," but urges the company to "never do that."

There is, obviously, nothing inherently wrong with a campaign successfully utilizing digital ad tools. But it's a stunning admission of power from a single company and a chilling reminder of how much control a single, private actor wields over access to political speech—enough, apparently, to swing an election.

The control massive private companies have over political speech is currently very much on display, as Twitter is repeatedly fact-checking and limiting from view tweets from both President Donald Trump and the White House. Snapchat has announced it will do the same.

All of this, then, is far less a conversation about "regulation" than it is a very necessary acknowledgement of the incredible amounts of power wielded over our speech, elections, privacy, behavior and markets by a handful of private companies—and if that requires more of an awareness from lawmakers, if not a public policy response. Yes, even conservative policy responses.

Facebook headquarters in California
Facebook headquarters in California JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

Google is currently under antitrust investigation for bundling services in the digital ad market by 50 state and territory attorneys general, the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and Congress. Congress is examining allegations that companies like Amazon and Google crush small competitors by stealing their intellectual property.

Though some have criticized an antitrust remedy as perhaps unfairly singling out tech companies, antitrust investigators and congressional scrutiny are focused on specific acts—not the targeting of specific companies without cause or merely because they are large. One need look no further than the overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in 2018 to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for the first time. That legislation passed in the Senate by a 97 to two majority.

While some disagree about the law's efficacy, the vote represented a sincere effort on the part of the Senate to protect children from online sex trafficking. It was never about singling out tech companies, per se. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.

As Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) put it, "big is not bad," and companies should not be singled out solely because they are successful. Rather, conservatives care about the equality of the marketplace and keeping small businesses competitive. It is incumbent upon them to ensure this is happening.

Mr. Chilson, my Newsweek "Debate" sparring partner, has in the past suggested that market inputs will solve perceived ills. But there can be no market inputs if the market is itself distorted. I agree with Mr. Chilson that innovation is vital to the American economy and must be fiercely protected—which is why it is critical to ensure that innovation in one sector is not being suppressed by a handful of companies.

In other words, antitrust enforcers and Mr. Chilson share the same goal: both want to protect and foster innovation, and both recognize innovation as an important economic driver. However, antitrust enforcers rightly identify small businesses, and not monopoly platforms, as the sparks that light that engine.

The power of Big Tech over our markets, culture and politics has been growing slowly, in a way that many of us have accommodated as a necessary infiltration. But the scope of that power, and its costs to the society we have ordered, are increasingly becoming plain.

As William F. Buckley famously stated, "I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors. ...I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me." How much or how little power we as individual citizens will retain, as Big Tech grows, is one of the most important questions of our present moment.

Rachel Bovard is senior advisor to the Internet Accountability Project.

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

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