In the wake of the outrageous and possibly illegal firing of James Damore for writing a memo that pushed back against Google’s “politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence,” the company has been the focus of an eminently deserved torrent of criticism. A fair bit of this critique has gone beyond the particular situation of Mr. Damore to look at the general hostility of the technology industry to conservatives and conservative thought. Unfortunately, what has been lacking from almost all of these cris de coeur is a strategy regarding what to do about it.
Fortunately, there are some things we can do that could turn the tables on Silicon Valley’s leftist censorship and restore free speech to the Internet. But first, some background.
The evidence of Silicon Valley’s hostility to the Right is everywhere. Prominent conservatives from Michelle Malkin to William Jacobson to Dennis Prager (just to name a few NRO contributors) — and an even greater proportion of those whose politics lean farther to the right, many of whom do not have access to mainstream media and rely on social media to fund their work — have seen themselves banned from major Internet platforms or had their content censored or demonetized. In most cases they are not even given grounds for their punishment or means of appealing it. While some more “mainstream” conservatives may not feel excessively troubled by the banning of more provocative voices farther to the right, in taking this attitude they make a tactical, strategic, and moral mistake. They do not understand how the Left operates. When voices farther to the right are removed, mainstream conservatives become the new “far-right extremists” — and they will be banned with equal alacrity.
In my scholarly work, I write primarily about energy policy, in which electric utilities are usually referred to as “natural monopolies.” Government regulation of these utilities has traditionally been justified to avoid having multiple companies building redundant and costly infrastructure and distribution assets.
For conservatives, the time has begun to think of some major Web services — in particular Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter — in the same way. Yes, they are private companies, just as many utilities are. And yes, these Internet monopolies do not have the same physical-infrastructure advantages that electric-utility monopolies have. But because of their network effects, their dominance and monopoly power are in many ways even starker.
If I don’t like my utility I can put solar panels on my roof and an inverter and battery in my garage, and I can still get power. But if I can’t get access to the 2 billion people on Facebook because Facebook doesn’t like my politics, my rights of free expression are greatly curtailed.
And despite the fact that these are private companies, they may be violating free-speech law, as Internet-law professor Mark Grabowski has detailed in the Washington Examiner. In Packingham v. North Carolina last month, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a North Carolina law barring sex offenders from accessing social-media platforms, with the Court repeatedly and strongly emphasizing that social media are now a crucial part of the public square. As Grabowski notes, California’s state constitution protects free speech in some privately owned spaces, such as shopping malls. Arguably, that protection should now extend to social media — and all the major tech companies are headquartered in California.
But even if such arguments are not brought before the courts, the market-dominance or monopoly issue still remains a potent justification for regulation. The value of a social network such as Facebook grows proportionally with the square of the number of people connected to it (a finding known as Metcalfe’s law, promulgated by networking pioneer Bob Metcalfe almost 40 years ago). Eighty-nine percent of U.S. Internet users are on Facebook. Twitter has more than 300 million users and plays a critical gatekeeper and distribution role in the high-speed promulgation of content and news. Google owns 88 percent of total U.S. search revenue. YouTube is similarly dominant in video.
Given their market-dominant positions, these companies control a substantial share of the information that Americans consume and therefore should be run in a politically neutral fashion. Instead, they have doubled down on politically motivated censorship — demonetizing right-wing content providers (unilaterally declaring their content to be unfit to have commercials) or even banning them while doing nothing about politically favored ones.
But there are solutions to this abuse of monopolistic power.
These solutions need not be excessively burdensome or intrusive. They could focus on creating a simple regulatory regime that would ensure these monopolistic companies:
Do not censor any content that is compliant with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; and
Do not fully demonetize any user’s content, pulling ads from posts only when the advertiser has requested such action be taken.
In addition, going forward, these companies’ records should be liable to be subpoenaed by the appropriate congressional committees to ensure that they have not abused their monopoly powers in ways that disfavor relevant content for political reasons, which they almost certainly do today. In the electric-utility industry, laws and regulatory bodies exist to ensure that the owners of transmission and distribution networks cannot arbitrarily discriminate against certain generators. The same if not greater standards should apply to speech.
Such a proposal is hardly pie-in-the-sky — in fact, a version of this idea has reportedly been pushed privately by the White House’s Steve Bannon, who, not coincidentally, has been among the most Internet-savvy voices on the right.
Even before the Damore firing there were plenty of ominous signs. YouTube had promised “tougher treatment to videos that aren’t illegal but have been flagged by users as potential violations of our policies on hate speech and violent extremism.” The supposed focus of this effort was videos promoting terrorism, but right-wing content providers were immediately affected, with their channels banned or demonetized in many instances.
What is needed is not regulation to restrict speech but regulation specifically to allow speech.
The stakes of inaction are clear. In a major profile in the The New York Times Magazine earlier this month, YouTube was referred to as “The New Talk Radio” providing right-wing and conservative content not available in mainstream sources and as a result serving as a rallying point for those on the right. The Times highlights Lauren Southern, Paul Joseph Watson, Ezra Levant, and Stephen Crowder as among the dangerous rightists on YouTube. Sophisticated watchers of the Right will recognize that these individuals belong to very different groups with different relationships to the conservative mainstream. But they should all be able to speak freely.
While I understand and share the concern about allowing government interference in private businesses, even those with monopoly power, we should not allow the conservative ship to be wrecked on the shoals of philosophical abstraction. What is needed is not regulation to restrict speech but regulation specifically to allow speech — regulation put on monopolist and market-dominant companies that have abused their positions repeatedly. Regulating these monopolies for the purpose of protecting free speech is a far different matter than regulating them to restrict free speech. To argue otherwise, to quote William F. Buckley in a different context, “is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.”
As bans and financial threats have become increasingly frequent, some on the right have moved from Facebook and Twitter to new platforms such as Gab. But while I wish Gab well and think it is vital that the Right build its own social-media ecosystem outside of leftist control, that is no substitute for the ability to speak to and interact with the mainstream — where people who might not be exposed to the ideas of the Right can be engaged with and persuaded. We need to be able to tweet to the unconverted, not just the choir.
YouTube promotes its “Creators for Change” program by writing that “no matter what kind of videos we make, we all have the power to help create the world we want.” But if Silicon Valley has its way, that won’t be true for conservatives. I personally know some executives at these companies who are politically open-minded. But taken as a whole, I don’t trust them to offer a free, open, and politically unbiased platform. And neither should anyone else.
That’s why we need to make sure that these monopolies and platforms — which have been shielded with their privileges, such as the Safe Harbor provisions of the 1998 Digital Millenium Copyright Act — respect the free speech of all Americans, not just those who agree with them. This administration can drain the Silicon Valley swamp and create change. To do it is going to require investigations from conservative journalists, legislation from Congress, regulation from appropriate regulatory bodies, and ultimately the support of President Trump.
The notion that social-media companies are utilities (and therefore might be regulated like utilities) did not originate in the fevered minds of right-wing policy analysts. For many years Mark Zuckerberg described Facebook as “a social utility” made up of “lots of separate networks.” He also described Facebook as “more like a government than a traditional company.”
“What we’re trying to do is just make it really efficient for people to communicate, get information, and share information. We always try to emphasize the utility component,” Zuckerberg said. But increasingly these platforms are making it as hard as possible for those on the right to communicate and share information.
Facebook, Google, and their ilk are indeed utilities, utilities that deliver public benefits and not just private ones. It’s time for Congress and the Trump administration to start treating them that way.
— Jeremy Carl is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. A former product manager for a large Internet software company, he lives in Palo Alto, Calif., sandwiched between the corporate headquarters of Google and Facebook and just down the road from YouTube and Twitter.