In recent weeks have been dominated, as they have been for much of the past year , with talk of Russian social engineering to influence the 2016 presidential election and to damage our political culture as a whole.
Lost in the clamor to discover who was behind some sad looking Facebook ads, however, is any acknowledgement of what may be a true and greater foreign menace: a foreign government that is openly pressuring large tech companies and academia to squelch free speech, not only at home, but here in the United States.
Here the threat is not Russia but China, whose leaders are extraordinarily sensitive to criticism, and to even the mention of Tiananmen Square.
For the moment, the bulk of China’s efforts have been devoted to locking down its mainland. In doing so, Chinese authorities have used the lure of their enormous and increasingly affluent market to get Apple and Amazon to join in their content censorship. Google, though compliant elsewhere, left China over its censorship requirements. Two years ago it knuckled under so its app store could return.
Academia is at risk, as well. Earlier this year, Cambridge University Press first removed, then restored, hundreds of academic articles on its Chinese website. Eager to extend their Chinese-language offerings, many other colleges furnish administrative support and physical space to so-called Confucius Institutes, ceding control over teaching staff and course materials to the home office in China. Needless to say, Beijing strictly controls the institutes’ political content. In Australia, the centers have even become tools for keeping tabs on and indoctrinating Chinese students studying abroad.
The surrender can be so slow as to be unnoticed by the colleges themselves. In 2014, taxpayer-funded Colorado State University at first refused my open records request for the school’s operating agreement with the campus Confucius Institute. Administrators finally produced the document after repeated requests. Turns out, the agreement had a confidentiality clause.
And there is increasing concern about what political strings might come with a potential new particle accelerator.Unfortunate for the locals, you say, but what does the price of T-quarks in China have to do with me?
So far, not much—unless you happen to be a Chinese national named Guo Wengui living in New York, and are in the habit of airing the dirty laundry of Chinese government officials. In that case, you might get an unauthorized visit from Beijing’s representatives trying to persuade you to return to China to stand trial.
You might also have Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube shut down your accounts for “harassment.”
As U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) pointed out, all three platforms are already blocked by China’s “Great Firewall.” The only purpose of cracking down on Guo’s accounts was to “extend China’s censorship regime to American soil.” They weren’t keeping Chinese at home from seeing Guo’s information. They were keeping Americans from seeing it, and Chinese abroad from seeing it and bringing the contagion back home.
This behavior by the tech oligarchs and higher-ed officials would be much less galling if they didn’t ritually make a show of what great corporate citizens they are, or of how much they value academic freedom. When Google left China, Sergey Brin claimed to be very proud of the role his company had played in defending free speech. And remember how Apple won the hearts of libertarians country-wide by refusing to unlock the San Bernardino jihadist’s iPhone for the FBI? In the end, when wink came to nudge, down they both went.
This would also matter a lot less if these social media companies didn’t operate as virtual monopolies. Not every free speech restriction is a First Amendment violation. Pauline Maier, in her book Ratification about the debate over the Constitution, describes how small-town newspapers that refused to print letters with an opposing view were often accused of violating citizens’ free speech, even in the absence of an as-yet-unratified First Amendment.
Nobody then was calling for the government to direct what was printed, and nobody who remembers the scandal of the IRS targeting Tea Party groups or the baleful days of the Fairness Doctrine is doing so now.
Likewise, it’s unclear that the current alternative under discussion—regulating these large companies like monopolies—would be any better.
The large tech companies hold onto their top spots largely because of our busted patent system. Yes, they spend ungodly amounts of money fighting each other. But what’s a cost of doing business for them is a crushing barrier to entry for smaller would-be competitors.
For instance, Amazon’s announcement that it would file for a meal-kit trademark was enough to tank Blue Apron’s IPO from $15-$17 to $6.66 on opening day. As of this writing, Blue Apron stock is priced under $4. Facebook routinely snaps up competing social media platforms, either incorporating their features into its main product or easing content-sharing between them. They can do this because for smaller startups, it’s easier to switch than fight.
In all likelihood, treating them as monopolies would only make things worse, ratifying their positions at the top of the heap, and validating their anti-competitive practices. What’s needed is more platforms, not fewer, and perhaps patent reform that forces the oligarchs to compete with rather than farm new ideas can do that.
At the same time, we could require that any programs receiving direct or indirect federal aid have their final faculty and curriculum decisions under the control of the college receiving the aid. This would prevent both private and public colleges from abdicating their responsibilities to Beijing.
We should understand that the stakes here are high, and the sooner we act, the better. Already colleges and tech companies feel the carrot-and-stick of China’s economic clout. Before long, not only will they be lobbying against these changes, China’s representatives to Washington will be bringing pressure to bear. In Guo’s case, the officials who visited him could have been detained under U.S. law, but were instead allowed to go free to avoid a diplomatic incident.
If we’re not careful and assertive, without even knowing it, Americans could find themselves censored by a foreign power, using our own institutions against us.