When they do it, it's suppressing civil liberties. When we do it, it's safeguarding democracy. That's the stance developing around regulation of tech companies and, by extension, online speech.
This attitude abounds in today's elite media and political spheres—alongside a bizarre reverence for the fact that more authoritarian leaders are regulating tech entities in ways that U.S. officials can't (or at least not yet). Today's New York Times piece on "reining in tech" is truly a masterpiece of the genre.
"Around the world, governments are moving simultaneously to limit the power of tech companies with an urgency and breadth that no single industry had experienced before," notes the Times. University of Michigan law professor Daniel Crane told the paper that it's "unprecedented to see this kind of parallel struggle globally."
Shouldn't it give us pause when we're engaging in the same regulatory crackdowns as these not-so-freedom-friendly regimes? How can any American earnestly suggest that we follow Communist China's lead on these matters? How can anyone claim with a straight face that the identical activity is a boon for democracy when the U.S. does it but is an authoritarian outrage when other nations do the same?
They accomplish this intellectual contortion by invoking the magic of good intentions, of course. Here's how the Times follows up its statement about global attempts to "rein in" technology companies:
Their motivation varies. In the United States and Europe, it is concern that tech companies are stifling competition, spreading misinformation and eroding privacy; in Russia and elsewhere, it is to silence protest movements and tighten political control; in China, it is some of both.
It's the kind of statement that would be hilarious if it wasn't so terrifying to realize that some people actually think like this.
Alas, far too many people in this country seem to believe that their preferred political leaders only want what's best for America and would never—never!—abuse their authority. They apparently think that their respective political team is above the corruption, censorship, cowardice, and petty power-grubbing that leads so many others to "silence protest movements and tighten political control."
Sheesh, we're only a few months out from a president that a lot of people swore was a literal fascist. And even Donald Trump's biggest fans might be willing to concede that he was not always the most scrupulous civil libertarian. Are people really so naive as to think we'll never have another Trump-like figure in power who might use new anti-tech regulations to settle personal scores?
And to be clear, this problem is much bigger than Trump. Let's face it: Cutting corners with civil liberties is a bipartisan American tradition.
Look at the bipartisan enthusiasm for FOSTA, the 2018 law working to silence sexual expression online. Look at the Obama-era Operation Chokepoint, which used federal rules to pressure financial institutions into reconsidering business with an array of disfavored industries. Look at the years of warrantless spying on domestic communications by the National Security Administration. Or look at the 18 years of misinformation the feds spread about Afghanistan. Or look at more recent attempts to cover up accurate pandemic-related information…
You get the point. Do these really seem like people and institutions that never let good intentions go awry? Why should we trust any of them to fairly arbitrate online truths? Or decide which communications tools should be allowed? Or determine what is and isn't good for individual privacy, freedom of expression, and rights?
Yet so many folks today on both the left and right want to hand over greater power to the same federal officials, agencies, and snoops that have disgraced themselves in the past.
Why? They say that companies like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Twitter are too big—too big to be bullied by folks like Josh Hawley into disallowing politically disfavored content; too big not to backtalk Elizabeth Warren or cower in front of Congressional committees; too big not to simply turn over whatever encrypted communications the FBI wants, or ban sex-worker ads because Kamala Harris says so.
Certainly, some tech companies do have "big power" over speech on their particular platforms. But users who find themselves on the receiving end of a suppression or ban—or who just don't like a platform's policies—always have the ability to move on to other digital entities. Even someone who manages to run afoul of the rules on all of the biggest platforms can still start new accounts, find a new home on more sympathetic social media spheres, and/or communicate through their own emails, message apps, and websites.
By contrast, when the government sets the rules for online communication—or effectively does so, by threatening digital actors with huge penalties for failing to enforce their preferred standards or failing to comply with regulatory requirements—then those who run afoul of them aren't simply barred from speaking on this or that platform; they are prevented from speaking freely anywhere online. And the government's penalty may be way more severe than simply losing one's account.
Tech companies can't lobby fines against their users and they can't initiate criminal charges. They don't have the right to say how outside platforms moderate speech, or with whom other companies may do business. They can't stop competitors from developing new products that compete with their own. They can't declare that anything competitors do to make their products better and prices cheaper is a violation of antitrust law.
Tech companies may be able to block access to an article or video within their own space, but they can't say anyone who posts it is inciting terrorism, committing a hate crime, violating obscenity statutes, or committing some other illegal act.
In short, it makes no sense to respond to the perceived failings of Big Tech by further concentrating control in the hands of the government, which is an even more powerful actor than any company.
The proper solution is to use liberal values—freedom of speech, contract, and association—to either disengage with the tech giants, pressure them to change, or to support new platforms to take their place. To use our individual rights and free markets, not to call for curtailing of those things. Because these are what truly set us apart from countries like China and Russia—not some imagined purity and beneficence on the part of American politicians.
American history—and present—is brimming with examples of political deception, corruption, and suppression of dissent. Giving government the power to "rein in big tech" will only make online services, censorship, and privacy so much worse—which politicians will then use as an excuse to grab even more control, as they have in previous wars on drugs, crime, and terrorism.
Is it too much to ask that, this time, we start questioning our government's "good intentions" before it is too late?