The Political Attack on 'Big Tech'
President Trump and former Vice President Biden don’t agree on much, except perhaps their desire to regulate “big tech,” although admittedly for different reasons. While some regulation of the technology sector could make sense, politics has turned much of the conversation into a continual “roast” of these companies. Unfortunately, these political attacks — from both the left and right — threaten to result in bad regulations if we are not careful.
The most glaring example of this slippery slope is the issue of Section 230, the law that protects platforms from liability for the content that users upload or create. President Trump, and many notable conservatives such as Senator Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, argue that this law allows “big tech” platforms to actively discriminate against conservative voices. To fix this, these politicians want to remove or limit Section 230 protections.
However, most examples of anti-conservative moderation bias really come down to individuals violating the platform’s terms of service. Though many of these examples can be easily explained, the president has led the charge in an effort to remove these protections. Beyond the damage already done by that threat alone, this could ultimately result in policies that will drive platforms to further silence the type of content the president wants to support.
Theoretically, this would be a perfect opportunity for Democrats to push back on the president. After all, it’s easy to explain why Section 230 protects free speech online and promotes competition, since the liability protections allow small companies to grow. However, many on the left feel that disinformation and hate speech online is the direct result of “big tech.” As a result, both the left and right have set their sights on these tech companies. In fact, Biden has gone on the record arguing in favor of revoking 230 entirely, a proposition that many 230 critics find untenable and ultimately counterproductive.
Big tech makes for an easy villain, so these political attacks should be no surprise. But bad policy threatens to rear its ugly head if these attacks devolve into a political show designed to raise campaign donations and increase the national profile of the politicians involved.
Today, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing with the CEOs of many of the major tech companies. The topic is about the dominance of a small number of digital platforms and the adequacy of existing antitrust laws and enforcement. To be clear, Congress should continue to examine competition in the online space. But, as often happens with hearings about technology companies, and with the added publicity that will be provided by bringing in these CEOs, members of Congress may see this as yet another opportunity to attack “big tech” unfairly or to propose solutions that will do much more harm than good.
These harms aren’t hypothetical. Take, for example, a copyright law in Spain, which allowed publications to charge news aggregators. Thanks, in part, to the narrative that “big tech” hurt traditional publishing, Spain passed the law as a means to go after companies like Google. However, news aggregators simply collect the headlines of the day, provide a little snippet and then direct users to the original websites to read the stories themselves. This is a valuable service, and one that many consumers want to use. Unfortunately, for those Spanish consumers, that service is now lost. This is because, due to the relative lack of profit that aggregation services provide companies like Google, it decided to simply pull the service. Likewise, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a well-intentioned law that regulates user privacy. However, with increased uncertainty and compliance costs, the regulation has thus far served as a means to entrench companies like Facebook into its current market positions.
This is not to say that no reforms are due. But many of the factors that make tech platforms competitive also provide significant benefits to consumers. For example, more data often translates to better services. Users also want to use platforms that have a large number of other users (it is social media after all). The pro-competitive justifications can be lost when the debate transforms into political attacks and hyperbole. Considering the relatively limited costs of starting competing services and the myriad of once-dominant tech companies that have been supplanted by start-ups, we shouldn’t expect that major reforms to competition law are necessary for the market to provide checks on behavior.
If Congress does wish to reform competition law, any changes must be approached with healthy debate and consideration of the consequences that may come with them. Many of the practices that are being targeted actually provide significant pro-consumer benefits. If we allow the debate to devolve into “technology is bad and therefore we must do something,” it may make for good politics, but American consumers will suffer.
Jeffrey Westling is a technology and innovation policy fellow at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, D.C.