How To Rein In Censorious Technology Giants

Over the past decade, the large technology companies of Silicon Valley have transitioned from a mindset of attempting to make government censorship impossible to a mindset of attempting to make government censorship unnecessary. Those with views which are in opposition to the progressive narrative have increasingly found their posts removed and accounts suspended on the social media platforms created by these companies. Though this is not a new problem, it has escalated since the firing of James Damore from Google and the unrest in Charlottesville. Those who are not part of the progressive movement, such as conservatives, libertarians, reactionaries, and the alt-right are increasingly finding themselves shut out of open discourse online, having to either signal compliance with the left or risk being de-platformed on the most popular social media sites. Though the alt-right has borne the brunt of this so far, it is unlikely to stop there, as the contemporary left does not value discourse in the same way as their classical liberal predecessors. There are several proposed responses to this situation, but none of them are likely to effectively deal with the problem. Let us examine these to discover their shortcomings, then craft a novel response that is more likely to succeed.

The Mainstream Libertarian Response

In the mainstream libertarian view, the large size of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, GoDaddy, Paypal, and others are astonishing success stories of free-market capitalism. They tend to view these technology companies as private businesses whose owners should be able to freely choose with whom they will associate or not associate. Indeed, many libertarians view ostracism as a nearly universal positive, working to reward preferred behavior while punishing dispreferred behavior. If these companies behave improperly, mainstream libertarians believe that the market will punish them by elevating an alternative to prominence.

Though ostracism on the basis of behavior is nothing new, the crowdsourcing power of the Internet has transformed it into a political weapon that can be used to ruin people unjustly. Moreover, it is capable of dividing an entire society along ideological lines. When reasoned discourse is shut down and unpopular viewpoints are suppressed by howling irrational cyber-mobs, those who are de-platformed are likely to have their internal victim narratives confirmed, radicalizing them further. This may serve as a precursor to a novel type of civil war, one which arises when the heated rhetoric that is naturally produced as a byproduct of democracy escalates into political violence and there is no peaceful outlet to reduce tensions before they consume the entire society.

In a free market, censorious behavior from the largest companies would be of little concern. As John Gilmore, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” But it is also true that those in positions of power view checks, balances, and competition as damage and seek to route around them. Technology giants accomplish this partly by lobbying governments to regulate their industries in a manner that they can capture, as any other large companies would. But they have another weapon which can be even more potent: they can use their platforms to keep their upstart competitors out of search results and application stores. This can keep their competitors from gaining the brand recognition necessary to build the user base to become successful social media platforms. This was less of a problem in the early days of social media when turnover of the most popular sites was higher, but the near-monopolies of the largest companies are no longer as vulnerable.

The Conservative/Alt-Right Responses

In the view increasingly expressed by conservatives and alt-rightists, the Internet is an essential aspect of life in the 21st century, and the technology companies that deny people access to the most popular social media platforms, domain hosting services, and payment processors are curtailing both the civil liberties and economic opportunities of those people. The largest technology companies are effective monopolies, in that these firms are the only sellers of products and services that have no close substitutes. In response, they call for the state to regulate these companies as public utilities, much as they do to providers of electricity, water, and natural gas. This line of thinking also leads to support among these people for net neutrality regulations. Some argue that government regulation is even more necessary in this case, as the network effects and first-mover advantages of the largest technology firms mean that a competitor cannot provide the same quality of service even if there are no significant barriers to entry into the business of creating social media platforms, search engines, and payment processors.

However, treating social media as a public utility is likely to cause more problems than it solves. When governments began regulating other industries, innovation in those industries slowed. The companies which were nearly monopolistic either remained so or became real monopolies, as competition became even more difficult. Freezing current troublesome companies in place as major players rather than allowing upstarts to displace them is an undesirable outcome. This is exacerbated by the fact that public utility regulations are just as vulnerable to regulatory capture as any other regulations. It is also strange to equate losing social media presence with losing access to goods and services like clean water or garbage disposal, as one can live a healthy life without access to social media. Furthermore, the cost of regulation is likely to be high, and the regulated businesses will pass this cost onto their customers.

A Radical Proposal

To summarize the above responses, the mainstream libertarian would do too little while the conservative or alt-rightist would do too much. What is needed is an approach that can stop the censorious technology giants from abusing the power they have accumulated without causing the innovation-stifling and monopoly-calcifying effects of government regulation. This approach should use state power in a manner which does not expand said power beyond its current size and scope, but will solve the problem with minimum malign interference in the economy. Fortunately, there is a simple and powerful solution which may be explained in a straightforward manner.

To begin, let us note that all of these technology giants are incorporated companies. A corporation is a legal fiction created by the state to shield business owners from full financial liability and ease the enforcement of laws upon those businesses. It is impossible to create a corporation without involving the state, as attempting to do so without registering the corporation with a government will have no effect. The closest one could come would be to negotiate recognition of a business entity with limited liability with each customer of that business, but this would not be identical to a state-recognized corporation in terms of its interaction with the state. Two results directly follow from this. First, registering a corporation amounts to participation in a government program. Second, state-recognized corporations are not truly private businesses, but public-private partnerships in which the state provides limited liability through its monopoly on courts and the private business fulfills its purpose, whatever it may be.

In order to participate in a government program, a person or other entity is supposed to be in compliance with government laws. In the United States, the highest law with which a state-recognized corporation should be in compliance for this purpose is the Constitution. The Constitution contains a number of provisions which are supposed to limit the conduct of government, including provisions to protect freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, security against unreasonable search and seizure, and due process, among other rights. Because state-recognized corporations are public-private partnerships, they should be held to the same limitations on their conduct.

Thus, we arrive at an approach that meets the conditions described above. The technology giants that are currently engaging in censorious activities against viewpoints that they find disagreeable should be approached by the state and given two choices. Their first option is to begin respecting the aforementioned rights in accordance with the above argument and stop their censorious behavior. Their second option is to forfeit their corporate charters and right to do business as a corporation in the United States. This means that they would lose access to all government contracts, loans, and grants, could not be bailed out by taxpayers if their businesses falter, could not receive property taken through eminent domain, and the personal assets of everyone in the company would be available for paying civil damages. In other words, the leadership of the technology giants would have to choose whether to contribute to a more open marketplace of ideas or to become free-market businesses, either of which would be an improvement upon the current state of affairs. Even the hint that such a proposal is being considered by high-ranking federal officials would have the technology giants rushing to behave better, and could accomplish the same results as public utility regulation with far less threat to innovation.

Now let us apply the test described above,

“This approach should use state power in a manner which does not expand said power beyond its current size and scope, but will solve the problem with minimum malign interference in the economy.”

Currently, the federal government enforces anti-discrimination laws on bases other than those involving the people being de-platformed by the technology giants. This proposal implicitly adds the basis of political ideology to race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and other currently protected categories. While this may appear to be an increase in scope, it would actually work to level out some of the discrepancies caused by protecting only the aforementioned categories. In order to evade constitutional restrictions, the federal government typically uses carrots rather than sticks to gain compliance from state government and large corporations, in the form of only awarding federal funding to compliant entities. Here, strings attached to continued recognition of corporate charters takes the place of strings attached to funds, but the overall methodology is unchanged.

As for malign interference in the economy, the latter option may appear to be so, but it is not upon closer scrutiny. First, no rational person in a leadership position at a technology giant would choose it due to the enormous risks involved in running such a large business without the legal shield of a corporation. Second, if any technology giants did choose the latter option, the change of ending state-recognized corporations in favor of government independence and full responsibility would be a beneficial move toward a more free-market economy.

Objections

Such a novel and radical approach is certain to meet objections, so let us attempt to anticipate and deal with some likely criticisms. First, there is the potential for technology giants based in the United States to balk at this dilemma and respond by leaving the United States for more favorable conditions elsewhere. Though this may be extremely disruptive in the short term, it would remove the canopy that is blocking the sunlight needed by the seedlings that seek to grow and replace the technology giants. The end result would almost certainly be both a more open and a more free market in the long term. But this is an unlikely result, as they would not wish to lose such a large and wealthy customer base as the American people.

Second, such a move would certainly be challenged in court, and the Supreme Court may see fit to rule against it. If this happens, then nothing will be lost and awareness of the need to appoint justices who are more friendly to the anti-censorship cause will be raised. It would also provide a strong President with a chance to ignore the Supreme Court and force the issue, especially if public opinion is against the side of the technology giants. The dominance of the judiciary in the American system is a longstanding problem, and any opportunity to challenge its power is a welcome development.

Third, there is the claim that this proposal is more about open markets than free markets. This claim is not without merit, but the current market conditions are neither open nor free. Working toward free markets is the primary economic objective of libertarian philosophy, but in the meantime, an open unfree market is superior to a closed unfree market. It is important not to fall into the trap of political autism by doing nothing until an ideal libertarian textbook solution hopefully comes along, which may not happen.

Finally, one may wonder why the issue cannot be left up to the market. In the long term, the market is essential for solving the problem posed by the technology giants. But although this is necessary, it is not sufficient for dealing with the immediate problem at hand. Through their current market share and their abuse of the power that said market share provides them, the technology giants are making the market unfree. Like it or not, the state is the weapon currently in play, and unless it is going to be eliminated in the near future, its power will either be used to favor the established companies or their upstart competition.

Conclusion

The technology giants have managed to acquire an unprecedented amount of power over the lives of people all over the world. As Frank Herbert observed, “Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.” If the leadership of these companies decide that they wish to silence someone and ruin their finances for whatever reason, it is within their capabilities to do so. Some may cheer because such a fate is currently befalling the alt-right. But what they do to Christopher Cantwell and The Daily Stormer today, they can and will do to anyone they dislike in the near future. Unless the technology giants are reined in, they will provoke the state into regulating their industries as public utilities, which will set back innovation by decades. The mere threat of the above proposal is capable of not only stopping their censorious behavior, but of opening the markets enough for private competitors to free them.

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  • Michael Wilkinson

    “Unless the technology giants are reined in, they will provoke the state into regulating their industries as public utilities”, I am not sure how one begets the other. It is just as likely the government will just join in on the party.