There’s a divide on the political right concerning whether Google and the social media companies are suppressing or censoring their views, and, indeed, promote values antithetical to free markets and a free society. Many social conservatives argue they do and demand government action.
The more libertarian-leaning argue that the charge of bias is not clear and, in any case, using government against these companies infringes on economic liberty and will be used by the left when it has power.
Both sides have legitimate points, but a nuanced understanding of the situation points to an opportunity for friends of freedom.
The leadership of the aforementioned companies and a good portion of employees are certainly more liberal, if not hardcore left. In the current primary season, high-salaried engineers and programmers have been big donors to socialists Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
But the real issue is not just about political views, but rather the legality of tech giants’ actions. Under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, social media companies are treated as platforms that third parties can use for posting content or communicating with others. Those companies are not treated as publishers like newspapers, meaning they are not subject to lawsuits for materials posted on their platforms in the same way a newspaper or a television news outlet would be.
However, in order for platforms to enjoy the protections of Section 230, they must not prohibit political and other kinds of legal speech. If they do, then they are essentially publishers who must be held to the same standards applied to other media outlets.
Although platforms like Facebook deny that they “pick and choose” the material they permit on their sites, there’s evidence that many tech giants, often in subtle ways, do just that. For example, PragerU has fought ongoing battles with YouTube because the video platform has taken down numerous videos posted by PragerU, despite the fact they are not obscene, advocate for violence, or harass others. Twitter has been accused of “shadow banning” conservatives, that is, not suspending their accounts but using certain techniques to prevent their posts from being widely viewed.
There’s also no question that leaders of numerous tech giants have been caught advocating for left-wing causes or admitting that they desire to use their companies to aid left-leaning politicians. For instance, a Project Veritas hidden camera video caught Jen Gennai, Google’s head of “responsible innovation,” taking exception to Warren’s call to break up Big Tech companies like hers because the resulting “smaller companies who don’t have the same resources we do” will be “charged with preventing the next Trump situation” and thus presumably be in a weaker position to do so. Gennai also spoke of Google manipulating its search engine to weed out “algorithmic unfairness.”
Numerous other examples offer prima facie evidence for examining whether these companies are really publishers and should be treated as such.
Some lawmakers on the right would go even further. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) promotes legislation that would require such companies to conform to “best business practices” with periodic government reviews. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) would remove Section 230 protection for companies that cannot demonstrate to federal regulators that they are “politically neutral.”
If social media companies are frightened by the prospect of being beholden to government regulators with their liberty limited, they should be! And now they know how the rest of us feel about the policies of the leftist candidates that they support would unleash on us all!
Attacks on these companies also come from the left, with critics calling for changes in Section 230 to force them to engage in more censorship of what they call hate speech and fake news. Conservatives should be concerned about this since they are the prime voices the left would silence.
Some conservatives say demanding platforms act in a more balanced manner is not enough. They say antitrust laws should be used against these companies and that they should be broken up into smaller businesses, a view many on the left agree with.
Although it’s understandable why some would take this approach, using antitrust laws is generally against free-market principles and should be avoided whenever possible, a position the political right has rightly espoused since the days of Ronald Reagan. Putting that sort of power in the hands of the national government would be far too dangerous over the long term.
Instead of attempting to use government to punish businesses the right fears—however reasonable that fear might be—it should embrace free-market values while demanding that tech giants act as truly open platforms if they wish to enjoy legal protections that publishers are not eligible for.
Conservatives and libertarians should also encourage these companies and their talented professionals to realize that they have prospered because of the free market, not in spite of it. It’s America’s market economy that allowed companies such as Google and Facebook to innovate, create a valuable, highly desired product, and to revolutionize the world we live in and the way we all communicate.
Keeping government from controlling tech giants is going to be especially important in the years and decades to come, as many of these businesses and their subsidiaries are investing in cutting-edge exponential technologies like AI, robots, biohacking, and nanotech, which have the potential to cure diseases and raise living standards for all.
Those on the right should call out Big Tech for their bias, yes, but they should also praise them for their remarkable achievements and appeal to them to use their resources and talented staffs to continue making the world a better, more prosperous place for everyone using technology and the free market and by rejecting the socialist principles that caused unprecedented chaos, destruction, and misery throughout the twentieth century.
Tech companies should stand up for an open society and open exchange of ideas, not censorship and the centralization of power. It’s not only in their own best interests but also in the best interests of the entire world.
Edward Hudgins, Ph.D., is research director at The Heartland Institute and an expert on technology policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.