There was an empty chair at yesterday's Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on what American social media companies are doing to prevent a repeat of Russia's interference in the 2016 election. Top execs from Facebook and Twitter were there ready to testify, but Google took a pass on sending someone senior — much to the annoyance of the committee. "It's just like, who do they think they are?" Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told Axios. "I don't get it, but if Google thinks we're going away they're making a big error in judgment."
It's highly unlikely that this is what Google or any large American technology company thinks. There's a reason the sector's five biggest companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft — spent nearly $50 million lobbying the federal government in 2017, with even more dough likely headed to Washington this year. They know the days are long past when politicians would only cite Silicon Valley as a shining example of America's technological superiority and fundamental economic strength. These days, the titans of tech are being politically pressured from the left and the right, with both sides continually upping the ante. Warner, for one, has circulated a serious, thoughtful white paper outlining 20 different approaches Congress could take for regulating the tech platforms on issues such as competition, data privacy, and disinformation.
Republican ideas aren't yet as sophisticated or developed. When President Trump recently claimed Google was rigging its search results against him and his supporters, he gave no clue as to what the policy response should be, only that there would be one.
But that was before Fox News weighed in. Given the importance of the pro-Trump network in molding the president's thinking, perhaps the White House is now investigating the musings of host Laura Ingraham, who last week raised the idea of semi-nationalizing Facebook and Twitter by turning them into government-regulated utilities.
Today in conservatism Laura Ingraham suggests it may be time for the government to take over Facebook and Twitter and run them as public utilities to eliminate bias against conservatives. pic.twitter.com/Ib5fLOYwQJ
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) September 1, 2018
That's right. The folks that supposedly value the wonder-working power of markets to create prosperity now seemingly want Big Government to regulate and run Big Tech.
Not that there has been any serious thinking on the right about how to execute a massive new regulatory scheme or what unintended consequences might arise from doing so. Have they thought about the possibility that, say, President Elizabeth Warren might latch onto the latest Trumpopulist thinking to create a Federal Internet Platform Commission to regulate the sector? What if Bernie Sanders were the tech regulator in chief? And haven't Republicans attacked net neutrality rules as a government takeover of the internet?
At this point, the right's anti-tech crusade seems more about creating a new emotional wedge issue, a la immigration, than serious governance. And if the past is any guide, the anti-conservative bias charge against Silicon Valley will be a permanent staple of the right-wing grievance industry, an extension of the long-time complaints that the mainstream media is biased against conservatives. Also not helping is the tech sector's advocacy for greater immigration at a time of growing restrictionism within the Republican Party.
Nor do the progressive left's complaints seem likely to be satisfied by Warner's more incrementalist policy options, such as greater algorithm transparency or a public initiative for media literacy. Other ideas, including data portability, would have greater impact, but even they fall short of demands by some activists that Facebook be forced to spin off Instagram and Google cut YouTube. For them, the mere size and power of Big Tech requires a big policy response.
Of course, these companies won't become less intrusive in our lives and less dominant anytime soon. Apple and Amazon probably won't be the last trillion-dollar tech companies. And it may be a harbinger of where Democrats are heading on the issue that Rohit Chopra, a Democratic commissioner at the FTC, recently hired a prominent advocate of breaking up or regulating Amazon under novel legal reasoning.
In other words, the risks are rising that the U.S. will make a terrible policy mistake and undermine a sector that is critical to generating faster economic growth and maintaining its technological edge. And it's not clear what Silicon Valley can do to counter it, other than continue to make super-popular products and services that people value.
Yet despite current GOP attacks on them, there is some hope for the tech firms if they can negate the persistent bias charge. One idea is to give users more control over the content they see by opening up the platforms to third-party developers who could create DIY filters. Let users ban Alex Jones rather than Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter's Jack Dorsey making the call. As much as possible, get the platform out of the moderation business. It's not a perfect solution in that it could contribute to our self-created information bubbles, but it could improve upon the status quo.