If conservatives want to preserve access to the online infrastructure of commerce and speech, they’re going to have to break up Big Tech.
In a passage in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a character named Mike is asked how he went bankrupt. “Gradually,” he replies. “Then all at once.”
Such a framing could also describe the raw power of Big Tech, which has been evolving over the last two decades into what can accurately be described as an oligopoly (when a market is dominated entirely by a handful of firms). That power was fully unleashed last month. After playing footsie for the last decade with their massive market and narrative control over America, Big Tech finally shed any pretext of restraint or deference to the norms of speech, diversity of viewpoints, or pluralism.
While the platforms hide behind the excuse of Trump, it’s clear these bans are not solely about him. After all, Trump has left office. Rather, it is a sincere effort by Big Tech and woke corporations to punish, de-platform, delegitimize, marginalize, and silence the millions of Americans who hold viewpoints and beliefs that differ from the alliance of corporate media, the establishment Democratic party, and the lords of Silicon Valley.
The stated pretext of banning content and actors who “incite violence” is a laughable and transparently fake excuse from platforms where violent threats and content circulate daily. Facebook can ban #stopthesteal from trending, but somehow cannot prevent ISIS from disseminating its recruitment propaganda, or the government of Myanmar from using its services to incite a genocide(following a successful military coup there earlier this week, state-run MRTV was posting propaganda to its Facebook page). Images of child sexual abuse circulate daily, but the platforms fight efforts to make them more responsible for it, laying the blame on law enforcement.
Moreover, the definition of what incites violence is left helpfully vague enough to cover whatever these companies happen to disagree with. Various bans in the last few weeks have extended to outlets selling patriotic clothing and the Facebook page of former Rep. Ron Paul, largely without explanation. (Facebook later claimed they banned Paul’s page “in error.”)
Big Tech Is Destroying the Public Square
This is hegemonic, corporate power, exercised at a scale that renders it capable of de-platforming ordinary Americans from consequential avenues of public life and commerce. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are speech platforms with outsized control over our discourse, deciding who gets to speak and what information deserves to be heard.
They’re also retail platforms. Together with Amazon, these companies influence what businesses can access mainstream markets, and by any reasonable definition constitute a digital oligopoly.
This market muscle was on display recently when Apple, Google, and Amazon acted in concert to take out Parler, the mainstream alternative to Twitter. Within hours of one another, Apple and Google removed Parler from their app stores, and Amazon’s cloud hosting arm, Amazon Web Service, booted the company, rendering its web component useless as well.
The excuse used was the violent threats proliferating on Parler, and allegations that the platform was used to “plan, coordinate, and facilitate the illegal activities in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021.” However, reporting from the Washington Post and other outlets finds that Facebook, its photo sharing app Instagram, and Twitter also played a role in organizing protest activities that day.
Given that those platforms have a much larger and influential reach than Parler, it follows that those apps should also be banned. But they haven’t, because this isn’t really about preventing purportedly violent content or illegal activities online. It’s a pretext for silencing entire groups of people for wrongthink – and conveniently eliminating a market competitor in the process.
This isn’t just an effort by the Big Tech platforms, although they have the most muscle to implement it. In a dramatic example of the power corporate America has to cut people off from the day-to-day infrastructure of society, former President Trump has been cut off from two of his banks. Stripe, the credit card processing app, will no longer transact with his campaign. Shopify will no longer sell the campaign’s wares. Salesforce will no longer send emails for the Trump campaign or the Republican National Committee.
The email service MailChimp is already banning certain users, while Mozilla, the nonprofit behind the Firefox browser, has said “bad actors” need “more than de-platforming.” As conservatives flock to encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram, left-wing nonprofits are already chomping at the bit to ban them, too.
When Big Tech’s narrative control colludes with corporate market control, it is almost unstoppable. The Federalist got a taste of it last year when NBC News worked with Google to try and take down the site for minor violations of Google’s ad policies in the site’s comments section.
The Federalist is a major website with millions of views and thus wields power to engage such an attack. Plenty of outlets are not. And if these companies are bold enough to collectively go after major publications and the president of the United States, they won’t even blink before going after you, your business, and your access to the marketplace.
They’ll also have help from Democrats, who very much realize that Big Tech is on their side. Michelle Obama decided to raise her concerns about Trump’s rhetoric not by going to Congress, not by making an appeal to the president or to the public, but by asking Big Tech to ban him. Same with Sen. Joe Manchin,D-W.).
Staff for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. publicly appealed to Twitter to stop circulation of a tweet Ocasio-Cortez had sent in December, saying “the whole point of protesting is to make ppl uncomfortable.” The tweet was naturally coming back to bite her during the riots at the Capitol, and her staff clearly believed Twitter would memory-hole it for them
At one time, the left would have been concerned about the government and business acting in concert to silence dissent. Now, because it favors them, they cheer it.
A Time for Choosing on the Right
In some respects, the Big Tech crackdown is a good thing for the right because it is remarkably clarifying. No more do we need to speculate about the extent of Big Tech’s market power and what they can and will do with it. It is clear that they are corporate hegemons who no longer feel restraint or accountability.
No longer do we need to suffer the libertarian retort of “build your own” to every concern raised about Big Tech. That argument evaporated as soon as Apple, Amazon, and Google joined forces to knee-cap Parler, cutting it off from the oxygen supply a growing small business needs to access a mainstream audience.
You can still build your own – but the minute you become competitive, they will come for you. And you will be crushed, relegated to a dusty, marginalized corner of the internet (but only if you’ve managed to build your own cloud hosting service first).
The pressing question for the right is where we go from here. There is legitimate frustration in the GOP base that their lawmakers – in the Senate, in particular – wasted four years chest-thumping and peacocking at hearings while taking no substantive action on the Senate floor. GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took the last remaining avenue for action off the table when he ignored President Trump’s pleas for the Senate to deal meaningfully with Section 230, Big Tech’s industry subsidy.
Part of the reason there was a lack of action is that the right has not coalesced around an approach. Elements of the right’s coalition believe the status quo is acceptable; that Parler brought the wrath of Apple, Amazon, and Google on itself due to its content moderation policies; that the social media platforms – as well as banks, online merchants, credit cards, and book publishers — have a right to de-platform Trump and anyone they choose, and that right should never be questioned.
Those arguments have merit as a factual matter (although the argument that Parler brought the ban on itself ignores the obviously hypocritical treatment of Parler in relation to Facebook and Twitter). But they are myopic and selective, ignoring the larger consequences to a free society that follow from the scale and ideological bent with which this is all being done.
Content moderation choices by Google and Facebook, in particular, change information flows for billions of users around the world. Companies, particularly those in the financial and retail sector, are the sinews of capitalism. Corporations lining up to form an ideological test for usership is a counterintuitive way to run a free market.
Yet this argument still holds sway among much of the right, who feign helplessness in the face of market action that their policies continue to prioritize and privilege with tax credits, legal carveouts, government contracts, trade deal benefits, and lax antitrust enforcement.
Matt Yglesias recently criticized conservatives for being excellent at whining about social media bias but having very little in the way of solutions. He is right, although he misunderstands the work some of us on the right have been doing. Forcing the right to rethink their reflexive alliance with business is a paradigm shift that cannot happen overnight – although the recent corporate crackdown should speed this along.
Much of the work I and others have engaged in is designed to persuade; to meet conservatives where they are while making the case that liberty can be threatened by corporate tyranny as well as government tyranny. This is a fundamental premise that must first be acknowledged if policy solutions are to receive broad support among conservatives.
But Yglesias is correct that the time for persuasion has ended, and the time to align around concrete policy solutions is here. The threat of ideological corporate monopoly or oligopoly power is a real and present danger, and left unaddressed it will relegate conservatives, libertarians, and anyone with a right-leaning persuasion to a second-class citizenry unable to access the infrastructure of commerce, speech, and community engagement.
Breaking Up the Big Tech Oligopoly
We’re talking about digital-era monopolies that, in their market power and influence, rival the Gilded Age trusts and cartels that once exercised exclusive control over vast swaths of American industry. Instead of dithering over whether to tweak Section 230, we need to ask ourselves whether Amazon should be allowed to own AWS?
Should Facebook be allowed to own Instagram and WhatsApp and scores of other digital companies? Should Google be allowed to own YouTube and Android and DoubleClick? At what point do we say that these companies simply have too much power and that they represent combinations and trusts that must, like their 19th-century forebears, be broken up?
On antitrust, in particular, the right must shed what has become a reflexive corporate deference that has led to a marked lack of curiosity about what is happening in the marketplace. For the last forty years, the Chicago School approach to antitrust enforcement, pioneered by Robert Bork and Richard Posner, among others, has grounded enforcement in the rational construct of consumer harm.
But over time, the bounds of the “consumer welfare standard,” as it is known, have narrowed substantially to an almost exclusive focus on price. This has effectively granted antitrust immunity to the giant tech companies, who operate in many price-less markets. Their core services are “free,” insomuch as you don’t transact in dollars for them (you pay, of course, with your data).
But prices, for the most part, do not drive tech markets – innovation does. So a reductive framing of consumer welfare, where the only harm that could be constituted is with higher prices, conveniently renders antitrust inapplicable to tech companies.
While enforcers give lip service to innovation, enforcement is largely limited to when a price effect can be demonstrated through sophisticated and expensive econometric modeling. In digital markets, this often means they take a pass, as illustrated by the hundreds of acquisitions entered by the platforms over the past decade, most of which were cleared by federal antitrust agencies with little scrutiny.
This approach must change. As Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a member of the Senate’s Antitrust Subcommittee and a brilliant attorney, tweeted recently, “the consumer welfare standard is . . . not a narrow concern with prices. As Judge Bork wrote, it encompasses ‘innovation, choice among differing products’ and quality.” Markets, he noted, must “work for consumers, not just monopolists.”
Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., has gone further, advocating for more resources and clear congressional direction for enforcement agencies, reforming the burden of proof in merger cases, and removing hurdles to enforcement when market power is clearly present.
Antitrust is not the only remedy available. Much of this corporate power exists because of government benefits for which the right has long advocated. If we are truly serious about tackling corporate tyranny, then it’s time for the right to tackle the policies that prioritize tech companies over everyone else.
It’s time to de-prioritize and end the billions in state, local, and federal subsidies fed to Big Tech companies. Both Google and Amazon enjoy substantial federal contracts with the government – AWS provides cloud computing for the CIA, for example. Those should be leveraged for better behavior.
Section 230, Big Tech’s congressionally granted legal immunity, should be reformed so tech companies are incentivized to address the exploitative and harassing content that proliferates on their platforms, and more accommodating of diverse political speech. Or, absent that, repeal it altogether.
The most compelling defense of preserving Sec. 230’s protections was that it protected free speech online. For conservatives, more and more of whom are barred from even participating in online speech forums, this is hardly a convincing argument for protecting what is effectively an industry subsidy.
The right can do more. Stop handing out taxpayer-funded, billion-dollar bailouts to corporations who should receive culpability instead. Push forward ideas that benefit small businesses and scrappy competitors over the lobbying power of entrenched interests. Our speech and communications in the public square have been fundamentally altered by the digital era, so perhaps a common carrier statutory framework should apply.
In short, stop privileging the companies who threaten pluralism and a free society, and restore the proper hierarchy of America, where the people rule — not the mob, not the corporate barons, not the bureaucrats, and not the tech titans.
This is the right’s time for choosing. The way we move forward will determine if we are a people beholden to the true ideals of republican government and free commerce, or if we have so corrupted the idea of freedom that we are happily willing to sacrifice the full expression of our liberties to a fundamentally undemocratic state of corporatism.