Elizabeth Warren and Lindsey Graham Will Break the Internet

The senators say they're creating an "independent, bipartisan regulator charged with licensing and policing the nation's biggest tech companies." What could go wrong?


Anytime there's a bipartisan consensus and a preachy New York Times op-ed, you can assume something you enjoy is about to get regulated out of existence or made worse in quality.

"Giant digital platforms have provided new avenues of proliferation for the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, human trafficking, drug trafficking and bullying and have promoted eating disorders, addictive behaviors and teen suicide," write Sens. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) and Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) in today's New York Times. "Nobody elected Big Tech executives to govern anything, let alone the entire digital world," so the senators are introducing a bill to create a new regulatory agency that will fix the problem.

What follows is a litany of untrue statements and gross exaggerations about the way Big Tech operates and the purported harm done by the cluster of websites that millions of Americans willingly use on a daily basis.

"Platforms are protected from legal liability in many of their decisions, so they operate without accountability," Warren and Graham claim. This refers to Section 230, sometimes called the internet's First Amendment, which was adopted in 1996 as a means of protecting platforms from being held liable for the content their users post (and without which platforms might choose not to host much speech at all). It also "ensured online platforms' ability to regulate posts that violate their terms of service," per First Amendment lawyer Robert Corn-Revere. Warren and Graham seem to think that somehow politicians and regulators would be better at determining which speech is permissible on different platforms.

"Google uses its search engine to give preference to its own products, like Google Hotels and Google Flights, giving it an unfair leg up on competitors," they continue. "Amazon sucks up information from small businesses that offer products for sale on its platform, then uses that information to run its own competing businesses."

"Apple forces entrepreneurs (and thereby consumers) to pay crushing commissions to use its App Store," even.

But they fail to argue for how consumers are made worse off by these purportedly destructive tactics. Google Flights makes travel planning far easier than the days before search. No person is prevented from going directly to an individual airline's website to book their flight if they prefer. Amazon has increasingly started developing Basics, its generic brand of commonly purchased household goods (just as Target has Target Brand products on offer); if someone needs a phone charger, they can get it more cheaply and quickly than ever before. As for Apple, of course other app developers must pay to place their products in the company's digital storefront; how nice that customers have access to products made by developers other than those at Apple!

"A few Big Tech companies stifle all competition before it poses any serious threat," the senators claim, ignoring that we're in an era where previously indomitable companies are crumbling before our eyes: Meta's Facebook is shedding daily active users (TikTok—a competitor—has long been on the rise) and Mark Zuckerberg's Metaverse augmented reality pet project has struggled to get off the ground; Twitter's U.S. ad sales are plummeting and traffic has declined each month since January (some users may be migrating to Meta-run competitor Threads, others to censorship-resistant protocols like Nostr). Hulu and YouTube are seeing drop-offs in weekly users (and some industry watchers are even noting a broader decline in the amount of time Americans spend on screens, post-pandemic).

But Big Tech companies are predatory, sucking up our data, claim Warren and Graham. Never mind the fact that we're not forced to use them, and that it's unclear what harm is actually done by them accessing our data. Most people, for example, aren't privacy hawks interested in setting up two-factor authentification, using only encrypted messaging, opting out of any governmental use of their biometric information, and the like, and just express vague concerns about data and algorithms, without any specific complaint as to how their life is made worse because of Meta knowing their birthdate.

Warren and Graham go on to announce they're introducing legislation to create an "independent, bipartisan regulator charged with licensing and policing the nation's biggest tech companies" which will be "nimble" and "adaptable" (just like all those other government agencies). The regulator will "prevent online harm" (by waving a magic wand and ensuring no bad actors ever go online); "promote free speech and competition" (by scrapping Section 230 and cracking down on mergers instead of trusting the existing process through which companies have cycled in and out of dominance); "guard Americans' privacy" (because government agencies do a great job at cybersecurity!); all while "protect[ing] national security" (it is unclear how banning Google Hotels will safeguard the homeland).

Contra Warren and Graham's implications, it's not easy to predict which new companies will emerge from the ashes of our discards. It's not clear that the existing landscape is detrimental to consumers (again, who use these products willingly) or immune from competition. Will Threads be successful? Will Elon Musk drive Twitter into the ground? Will the future be Substack? Patreon? X? More group messaging and less interest in expansive social networks? Are people losing interest in streaming, in favor of shorter-form content like Reels? Will Amazon's grocery delivery business succeed? Will its movie studios? Maybe neither, and it will actually be a health care industry disruptor, offering cheaper pharmaceuticals than ever before. And why is it that Microsoft—the still-massive company under investigation right now in the E.U., and the target of much 1990s antitrust ire—is so infrequently mentioned today?

Warren and Graham have indeed reached a bipartisan consensus: They sell short the good done by these large companies, exaggerate the harms, and display the type of extraordinary hubris that commonly emanates from government officials.