Big Tech was in the spotlight this week as the CEOs of Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon were grilled by lawmakers on the House subcommittee on antitrust for over five hours.
The goal of the hearing was oversight—for Congress to use its investigatory powers to examine whether the question of whether these companies have violated the country’s existing antitrust laws. But, as things have a way of doing in Congress, the hearing became a proxy for all kinds of problems and concerns that policymakers have with Big Tech.
Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) led with the issue of anti-conservative bias, firing off a litany of examples where Big Tech has de-platformed or suppressed conservative viewpoints—most recently, appointing themselves the arbiters of scientific debate by banning a video of doctors discussing the potential effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment and preventative for COVID-19.
Systemic bias is hard to prove, but important when one considers how dominant these platforms are. Republican defenders of tech are always quick to point out that these are private companies and are not bound by the First Amendment. In theory, they are free to suppress whatever views they want. But that sidesteps the vital issue of scale and its downstream effects on free and independent thought.
Facebook and Google (which includes YouTube), and to a lesser extent, Twitter, operate as a functional public square. They are the channels through which news is made and consumed for billions of people around the world. Google, in particular, filters information for 92 percent of the globe. When Google takes a step, like it recently did, to suppress the appearance of conservative websites in search results, the ramifications are enormous.
Google independently defines terms in the English language, modifies the search results around terms like “abortion” and “immigration,” tweaks algorithms on behalf of big businesses over smaller ones, and self-preferences its own products in search terms over those of competitors (even when a competitor’s result might be more relevant to the search at hand). Earlier this year, Facebook removed content promoting anti-lockdown protests in cities all across America. The company was within its rights, but walking right up to the line of a private entity acting as an arm of the government.
If there was a robust marketplace in Big Tech, and Google and Facebook didn’t have near-total dominance over presenting information to the world, this would hardly matter.
But the sheer scale of Google’s power means it can, simply by tweaking an algorithm, remove entire points of view, businesses, and other information from 92 percent of the planet—and keep those billions of people from knowing that alternative information exists. The ramifications for independent thought—not to mention commerce, behavior, and elections—are immense.
It’s More Than Just Bias
But, critically, committee Republicans also showed their depth on other key issues with Big Tech—namely, how entangled these firms are with China, and the lengths to which they are willing to go to ensure they’re never removed from the top of the market pyramid.
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) unleashed an assault on Google’s Sundar Pichai for his company’s willingness to work with the Chinese military while it cites “ethical concerns” over partnering with the American military. He repeatedly brought up Big Tech’s role in helping China suppress its minority Muslim population, the use of slave labor in manufacturing plants, and alluded to Apple’s removal of apps helping the protestors in Hong Kong.
In a particularly striking moment, Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) asked each of the CEOs if China steals technology and intellectual property from American firms. Every CEO except for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg denied it happens—despite the well-documented evidence that it does.
Committee Democrats also pressed on allegations that Amazon uses third-party seller data to undercut its competitors, that it swipes ideas from its smaller competitors with impunity, and that it does little to counter the counterfeit products running on its site that do serious damage to established brands—even when those brands choose not to do business with Amazon.
The goal of the committee—as is the goal of antitrust investigations at the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, and by 50 state attorneys general—is to ensure that a free and fair market still exists in tech. We need a market where competitors actually can “build their own” platform, and compete on the merits from an equal footing.
Economic Reductionism on the Right
But what to do about Big Tech is still an unsettled and internecine battle on the Right. On the day of the hearing—again, to examine whether or not existing antitrust laws have been broken—a coalition of right-leaning groups announced it would be pushing back against the use of antitrust against Big Tech and any attempt to rewrite antitrust laws.
While some are debating whether or not antitrust law needs an update, that is not at all what is at issue in ongoing investigations into Big Tech. Rather, those issues center on whether or not Big Tech has violated antitrust laws already on the books and, if so, how those laws should be enforced.
(It should also be noted that antitrust laws provide plenty of remedies besides “breaking up Big Tech.” And there are also plenty of policy remedies outside of antitrust itself.)
But the party that believes in the rule of law—and opposes amnesty for lawbreakers—cannot seem to agree that rule-breakers should be punished, at least not if the names of those rulebreakers start with G and rhyme with “oogle.” The party of small business is also curiously uncurious about how companies like Amazon treat their smaller competitors, or the brand damage that is done to businesses by unchallenged counterfeit operations.
Rather, the attitude of D.C. Republicans toward Big Tech was summed up nicely by the Washington Examiner’s Tiana Lowe, who saw the entire hearing this way:
[Bezos and Zuckerberg] have created nearly 900,000 jobs that didn’t exist previously. They’ve created more than $2 trillion in wealth through entrepreneurship & innovation. Just remember that when people who’ve never created a single job or dollar of GDP in their lives vilify them.
Yes, these companies have generated immense wealth and jobs; although their soaring corporate profits aren’t necessarily making their way down to the working class. But that, by itself, should not spare them from the scrutiny required to discover nefarious market behavior—and it should not blind conservatives to the broad scope of the issue, which encompasses the state of free thought as well as free and fair markets.
The continued insistence that all that matters here are the economics of quarterly earnings reports exposes the reductiveness of Beltway conservatism and corporatist libertarianism, both of which distill everything to an economic outcome—usually whatever benefits big business the most.
It’s a brittle, flimsy, and shallow conservatism that ossifies into ideology, rather than embracing the fullest definition of individual liberty: one in which the individual is not compelled to bend the knee to a tyrannical government, or a tyrannical corporation. Even Friedrich Hayek acknowledged the “legitimate function of the state power to regulate monopolies and curtail industry practices in restraint of trade.”
The American people seem to grasp what some D.C. Republicans cannot: the fight over Big Tech isn’t about job creation, large platforms, or who is richer than whom. It’s an existential question about the power of megacorporations to commoditize and control every feature of our being, and the larger questions that situation poses about the nature of liberty.
Is it truly “freedom” to have the entire world at the mercy of Google’s decisions about what they can see, Facebook’s decisions about how and what we can say, or Amazon’s ability to ruin the reputations of businesses that don’t even use their services?
Conservatism, traditionally understood, is well equipped to handle this moment. Though, perhaps this quote from Barry Goldwater—whom Reason magazine called “America’s first libertarian politician—summed it up nicely in Conscience of a Conservative: “The enemy of freedom is unrestrained power, and the champions of freedom will fight against the concentration of power wherever they find it.”