Are we ready to live in our new digital environment?
America’s Last Chance Against Big Tech Values
When we come at Silicon Valley’s kings, we best not miss again.
“The Internet treats censorship as damage, and routes around it,” said John Gilmore, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in the heady early days of the Internet.
For those of us who were in the vanguard of the web (when I first began using the web in 1993, there were fewer than 100 web sites in the world, now there are approximately 1.8 billion), we thrilled to Gilmore’s words and the notion that “information wants to be free,” as fellow tech visionary Stewart Brand said.
How naïve we were.
Ultimately, the Death Star always gets a vote. Having crushed earlier attempts to create “walled gardens” in the 1990s with online services such as CompuServe and AOL, grassroots Internet freedom advocates were caught flatfooted as Facebook, Twitter, and similar sites occupied more and more of our attention in their private worlds, and when Google began firmly controlling our experience of information by providing an increasingly political screen around its search results.
Before we knew it, a few companies had the ability effectively to deplatform a sitting president. My more tech-knowledgeable friends and I had long had informal side bets about when Facebook and Twitter would kick Trump off their sites, but we always pictured it happening after he left office. Even as people fully aware of the power, hostility, and arrogance of Big Tech, the most cynical among us were still surprised it would act so radically.
Given Big Tech’s relentless hostility to our interests, and our lack of effective control over its behavior, what is to be done?
Stand Our Ground
Contrary to impulse and inclination, we should not remove ourselves from mainstream platforms. These forums give us an opportunity to talk and organize amongst ourselves in large and expansive groups. And even more importantly, they give us the ability to make our views heard in a mainstream discourse that otherwise shuts us out. That’s what was so powerful about the way Trump supporters used social media in 2016.
While even the most influential conservatives (outside of Trump) could never approach the 50 million-plus followers of the top Twitter accounts, those with large bases still had the ability to speak and be noticed. A tweet from a three or four million-follower Twitter account like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul could demand a response even from the biggest accounts on the Internet, allowing a powerful opportunity to shape the narrative.
But even our smaller conservative micro-celebrities can take their tens or hundreds of thousands of followers and generate a response from big names in the mainstream culture with whom we couldn’t have hoped to have interacted with previously. If their content or insight was compelling enough, even a small account with a few thousand or even a few hundred followers can break through into the mainstream discourse. The world of social media prior to the great purge gave the right, especially those out of the elite-defined mainstream, an unprecedented ability to shape the dialogue. We can’t afford to give that up without a fight.
Pave New Roads
But we must continue to develop alternative tech. Right now, unfortunately, most of our products suffer from technological immaturity, founder immaturity, or both. But the tech world abhors a vacuum and this won’t continue forever. There are plenty of successful tech entrepreneurs who understand the need and want to help. Many conservatives in the tech world are politically closeted to varying degrees right now, but can be convinced that if they arrive with products, we will arrive with customers.
At the same time, we should not deceive ourselves about the scale of effort needed—not just new social networks and tools, but new payment processors, denial of service protectors, and content distribution networks, to name just a few of the pieces we’ll eventually need. While we must work relentlessly on the political front to ensure that we retain access to mainstream platforms, ultimately we need a technological declaration of independence as well.
Build Winning Coalitions
Finally, we must act legislatively. We blew a huge opportunity while Trump was in power. We were inexpert, legislatively flatfooted, and the President failed until too late to understand that, whatever their silver-tongued words, Big Tech is our sworn enemy. Many legacy conservatives were too committed to the principle that private companies must never be interfered with, failing to recognize that these gargantuan corporations operated under the umbrella of government protection. Many other GOP politicians, even those who recognized the danger, were often better at speechifying against Big Tech than they were at passing legislation.
The critical question facing us now is whether there is a deal to be done with left-wing Democrats who also want to rein in Big Tech, for their own reasons. This bipartisan coalition was most recently evidenced in the significant GOP support for the nomination of Lina Khan—a leftist who argues for strong antitrust action against Silicon Valley—to be a commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission. Perhaps this coalition can help weaken tech’s hold on society. Given that Democrats generally prefer more deplatforming of right-wing voices, there is reason to be skeptical, yet there may be tactical opportunities to work with some Democrats who share our concerns about Big Tech’s power.
Meanwhile, at the state level, social media censorship bills signed in Florida and soon in Texas represent a major step toward re-orienting a “balance of terror” between Big Tech and the GOP.
We will have to be both much smarter and tougher than we were in fighting Big Tech during the Trump years. As the saying goes, “When you come at the king, you best not miss.” During its first few years, Trump went at the king without the requisite seriousness, and eventually paid the ultimate (online) price for that failure.
We will get, at most, one more serious chance to come at the Big Tech kings. During our exile from power, we need to plan our strategy meticulously to ensure that, when the opportunity presents itself, we do not miss.