The veil separating Google’s inner workings from the outside world recently slipped again with revelations that the company discussed “tweaking” its search engine to help thwart the Trump Administration’s efforts to stem the flow of travelers into the United States from terrorism-prone countries. Adding to existing fears over the censorship of conservative ideas on Google’s platforms and elsewhere in cyberspace, this confirmation of big tech’s ideological echo chamber is only the latest in a growing array of concerns over the tech industry’s growing political power and its threats to public safety and constitutional governance. This techno-political sea change not only threatens to censor debate, it also underscores tech’s threat to privacy, the integrity of networks critical to national security, and the viability of employment in industries threatened by robotics and artificial intelligence.
These new technological changes combine to offer Republicans the chance to broaden their policy platform and make themselves the party of responsible technological regulation.
Who Will Regulate Responsibly?
When asked about where Democrats or the GOP stands on issues such as abortion, the environment, or gun control, even the most vaguely aware voters can draw from general knowledge and state where each party generally stands. Yet, the same cannot be said for problems involving software firms and social media companies. Are Democrats more committed to protecting American jobs from artificial intelligence? Does the GOP’s skepticism of government business regulation extend to companies tasked with protecting consumer information? Which party is more committed to freedom of speech online, or committed to the freedom to virtually assemble? Answers to such questions are not readily apparent because neither party has made a point of staking a claim on regulating big tech.
Voter demand for more responsibility and oversight in the tech industry is readily apparent in many recent polls. In a 2017 poll, more than 70 percent of Americans expressed fears of economic displacement and increased economic inequality caused by robotics and artificial intelligence replacing human workers. A similar survey found that majorities of voters across party affiliations support increased governmental regulation of artificial intelligence, with 73 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans favoring increased oversight.
This demand for more government protections of American workers from technological replacement fits nicely with the economic nationalism of the Trump-era GOP. In 2016, Trump’s support among middle-class voters stemmed in large part from his campaigning to preserve American manufacturing and his promises to renegotiate the country’s trade relations. It is not coincidental that Rust Belt states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan chose Trump’s appeals to economic national interest over Hillary’s commitment to supporting the international economic status quo. Similar to free trade’s erasure of American jobs, and immigration’s downward pressure on worker income, the threat of artificial intelligence and robotics threatens the long term-viability of the American dream. If Republicans make effective regulation of artificial intelligence a mainstay of their larger platform, the GOP can help safeguard its 2016 gains among American workers.
If regulating artificial intelligence offers new territory for the Republican economic platform, big tech provides yet-unclaimed policy stances toward social issues such as freedom of speech and consumer protection. Since the end of the McCarthy era, freedom of speech has waxed and waned as a priority social issue. Decades of distance between the 1950s and today obscure the fundamental differences between the two eras, and the different threats to free speech in both. As opposed to debates during the height of the Cold War, current debates over free speech do not derive from imperatives of national security; instead, they arise from elementally differing worldviews between the mass American public and those who claim ownership of today’s social media platforms.
Suspicious of Censorship
Social media giants overwhelmingly lean to the Left in their political donations, and Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey even admitted social media’s bias. With news sources increasingly dependent on Facebook traffic, tweets by political figures, and viral videos, the manner in which large private tech firms facilitate discourse has tremendous impact upon the health of the American polity. Republicans are remiss to treat social media companies like any other private enterprise, particularly as no comparison exists in which a single industry transmits the same degree of information for such a large portion of the population.
Voters are suspicious of censorship. A June poll found that roughly 70 percent of Americans believe that social media censors based upon political ideology. Unlike other social issues that separate Democrats from Republicans, social media censorship can impact every aspect of American life. Indeed, the very notion of separate personal and political spheres can be erased through social media censorship. Despite this impact, the problem of social media censorship has yet to find a home on the Republican Party platform.
The populist surge that elected Donald Trump is only one part of a larger phenomenon in American politics. During the 2016 presidential primaries, Trump’s rise through a formidable list of GOP contenders was matched by Bernie Sanders’ nearly overtaking Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. Ideological zeal and simplicity may explain the early levels of support enjoyed by both men, but that explanation falls short in understanding their concurrent levels of electoral success. Trump and Sanders appealed to countless millions of voters who no longer felt America’s institutions had their best interests at heart.
It remains uncertain whether Trump’s election indicates a fundamental party realignment or represents merely an electoral anomaly. While some historically Democratic voters chose Trump over Clinton, the larger question remains whether party platforms will change for the long term. Success in primary elections by Trump-backed candidates, and by previously unthinkable Democratic Socialists indicates that such a realignment may be taking place. Both parties, however, seem inclined to remain aloof on this question of whether it is smart to adopt platform positions on issues related to big tech and cyberspace.
If Republicans adopt a coherent stance on protecting American jobs from artificial intelligence, it could widen their base among working and middle-class voters in ways that cut across existing racial demographics. Similarly, strong Republican opposition to social media censorship offers a new potential stance on social issues that will be attractive to unaffiliated voters and especially to young voters with a more libertarian mindset. Republicans would do well to seize this opportunity to become the party of responsible technology.
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