Overregulating digital technology will backfire in the end.
Implementing a Tech New Deal
Start with online speech coalition-building.
There has been no shortage of people on the Right complaining about the power and malignant influence of Big Tech (I know this because, for many years, I’ve been one of them.)
However, such critiques have often been tactical rather than strategic. And they have largely lacked an overarching theory of the particular problems that Big Tech creates for our society. The article on the Tech New Deal recently published in The American Mind provides this broader framework, correctly diagnosing Big Tech in its existing incarnation as anti-Constitutional, anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-human.
Unfortunately, none of these four problems is a bug in the coding of our current tech oligarchy: they are all features. That is to say, they are intended aspects of the current system and not accidental or unwelcome byproducts of it. Quite the opposite: the controllers of that system see them as assets.
Big Tech’s globalism is a consequence of its obsession with frictionless worldwide markets. Its interest in anti-constitutional projects like speech control is part of its overall leftist and globalist orientation—almost none of Big Tech’s biggest markets have the same protections of speech and expression that we prize in America. And they are anti-Western in no small part because “personnel is policy.”
Big Tech has relentlessly imported foreign software engineers—many quite talented, but many others mediocre H-1Bs or others whose primary “virtue” is that they work more cheaply than their American colleagues. As a result, a disproportionate number of those at work in Big Tech today have few roots—or in many cases none at all—in this country, its values, and its traditions. Partially as a result, there has been a massive net exodus of native-born Americans from Silicon Valley over the last two decades, even as the Valley’s overall population has grown substantially.
It is important to note that this situation was not some essential aspect of building a tech powerhouse. The original Silicon Valley, while always having a significant immigrant presence, was a fairly conservative place—one that sent several Republicans to Congress (most recently Tom Campbell, who served until 2001). But it was Big Tech’s incessant demand for cheap immigrant labor that swung the Valley overwhelmingly left.
While the authors of the Tech New Deal have provided a valuable framework and diagnosis of Big Tech’s ills, a broader question remains:
What is to be done?
To address that, the first question that conservatives must answer is what we are willing to do with Big Tech and what are we willing to do to Big Tech. Right now, the Right’s biggest practical problem is that tech leaders do not fear us in the way that they fear the woke Left. This reality is even more important than the inherent dislike of Big Tech for the right. As Machiavelli observed, it’s better for a Prince to be feared than loved—and in Silicon valley, the Right is neither.
It has not helped matters that, rhetoric aside, the Trump administration has sometimes seemed more interested in attacking the E.U. for going after America’s Big Tech companies with a digital services tax, than in going after Big Tech for its conduct toward conservatives. While some claim the President is “obsessed” with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, this alleged obsession hasn’t extended to actually making sure Amazon pays federal taxes. Or seriously reforming H-1B giveaways, or ensuring that Mike Lee’s visa scam bill doesn’t get through Congress. The administration has made promising moves recently on the antitrust front, but until we see actual cases brought, it would be premature for conservatives to celebrate.
While there is a wealth of issues—from outsourcing to monopoly power to automation—that Big Tech presents to the Right, the core issue that must be at the center of our efforts is the need to protect free speech online.
Some, such as Tucker Carlson, have realized the centrality of the issue. Carlson recently argued that online speech is perhaps even more important than trade and immigration, themes central both to MAGA world and to Carlson’s own rise as arguably the most influential media figure on the Right.
This is like the fight we should have been having because it’s the predicate for everything…. People…will sit there with a straight face and tell you ‘this is a really important Constitutional question.’ No, the Constitution is not relevant if we can’t say what we think about the Constitution. Under the coming regime, which again is approaching at high speed, we possibly won’t be able to. We should be highly alarmed about this. We should see this as a foundational issue.
The biggest power that the web gives the Right is the power to organize and speak without the approval of the Left, which dominates the mainstream media. If we do not have the ability to speak and organize politically, then our any other “freedom” we have is useless. Our enemies here and abroad understand this, which is why they are dedicated to restricting that freedom here (witness Elizabeth Warren) and abroad (witness Sacha Baron Cohen’s acceptance speech for his Anti-Defamation League award, and Canada’s demand that platforms take down “hate speech”).
What would a strategy to counter Big Tech look like?—One that could form the right political conditions to allow the birth of a Tech New Deal? I propose five pillars of such a strategy.
First, we need to make Big Tech “eat its own dog food” on social policy. Eating your own dog food is a tech industry term meaning that you use your own software internally for your own work. In terms of policy, we must ruthlessly demand that Big Tech live up to every one of its own woke SJW policies.
For example, we should encourage the Trump administration to pursue possible employment law violations religiously against Big Tech companies. Most toe an intolerably leftist line on race, affirmative action, and “hate speech.” Yet their own executive and engineering ranks are Asian-American in wild disproportion: Almost half of engineers at the top companies come from this demographic, which represents less than 5% of Americans. Tech is also 80% male, and 59% of its Executives are white men. Even of the small fraction of executives who are African-American or Hispanic, few hold engineering roles. By disparate impact theory (much beloved by the Left), these companies are hugely discriminatory.
We should also unapologetically use the bully pulpit to expose Silicon Valley for its record high inequality and poverty in the midst of the greatest concentration of wealth in America. Wealthy communities where Big Tech is concentrated should become centers for programs like Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, and other public housing efforts, refugee resettlement projects, homelessness initiatives, criminal justice “reform” campaigns, and so on.
The administration should play hardball on taxation, regulatory policy, immigration policy, and most importantly free speech. We should make it clear that the Valley will get absolutely nothing from Republicans unless they make significant progress on issues of importance to us.
Second—We need to expose Big Tech’s bought and paid for allies on the Right. Aggressive movement on these issues will require a more unified Right than we have today. Unfortunately, think tanks including Heritage, AEI, and others have taken Big Tech money, and this has neutered their critiques of Big Tech. We need to expose those think tanks and others who are in Big Tech’s pocket and lead a donor-driven demand for internal reform.
Third, we have to work with those who are developing technological solutions to the speech issue, particularly those that focus more on open protocols than on closed platforms. While this is complex in practice, the idea is a relatively straightforward one: build publicly-accessible systems for producing content, not privately-curated programs for distributing content.
A protocols-based approach would also allow customers to own their own data and would thus be very popular with users. Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee is pushing one possible solution. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick has pushed this as an idea in a white paper that attracted some attention, and even a partial endorsement from Twitter. Offering consumers ownership of their own data, and by extension dramatically increasing their own ability to speak freely and preserve their own privacy, has the ability to be a political winner that crosses partisan divides.
Having said that, we should not fall into the trap of libertarian purists who ignore the reality of network effects and simply tell conservatives that they need to “build their own Google.” Open protocols and data ownership are a supplement to, not a substitute for, open and fair treatment from existing tech oligopolies.
In that line, we should also continue to keep pressure on through promotion of bills such as Senator Josh Hawley’s (R-MO) reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which would demand political neutrality from platforms before continuing to grant them extraordinary legal protections.
Fourth, we need to undertake a thorough and rigorous examination from multiple credible sources of how Big Tech bias sways elections that can convince average citizens of the importance of open platforms and minimizing tech bias. The work of respected psychologist Robert Epstein in areas such as the search engine manipulation effect is important, but must be built on by other researchers.
Fifth, we need to expose fake reformers, such as Elizabeth Warren, who want to eliminate all political opposition eliminating “hate” online. Even when it comes to those voices on the “far Right” who may be genuinely objectionable, conservatives need to understand that if they are de-platformed, we become the new “far Right” that our enemies will seek to take down.
There are some genuine voices on the Left who still believe in free speech and are concerned about the power of Big Tech monopolies—we should certainly work with those individuals and groups in cross-partisan alliances, but we should not buy into the false reform of the woke Left which feels the only problem with today’s Internet is that they do not have a total monopoly on dictating acceptable discourse on it.
Accomplishing the aforementioned goals, of course, does not portend the end of the Right’s struggle against Big Tech or even the beginning of the end—but it would perhaps be the end of the beginning. Undertaking a serious campaign such as this one would bring Big Tech to the table to have a genuine discussion with the Right and allow us the political space to promulgate a Tech New Deal that would genuinely serve our interests—and America’s.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.