Last week, another media firestorm swept through Silicon Valley after Facebook and Twitter censored a New York Post exposé of Hunter Biden’s allegedly shady business dealings while his father was in office. Whatever the truth of the story — which has a murky origin, although some of the contents have already been confirmed elsewhere — the tech titans are selectively enforcing the policies that the Post story violated. Many on the left and the right are outraged, and they ought to be. Censoring news reports with obvious political implications is bad for democracy. That said, there’s no denying that social-media companies have a difficult task when certain nations make use of these platforms to spread falsehoods and propaganda in the U.S. Even as the executive and legislative branches consider how to address this problem, they should respond to a competing authority that aims to put a bit and bridle on American tech companies.
Last week, the Financial Times turned its attention to the European Union’s newest campaign against the American tech industry. EU officials are preparing a special set of regulations for 20 or so tech companies, which could possibly include forcing the firms on their “hit list” to break into constituent parts or sell off their products. The list has not yet been made public, but it almost certainly includes many of Silicon Valley’s most productive firms. Facebook’s and Twitter’s most recent rake-stomping spree makes them uniquely unsympathetic right now, but the United States should not stand by and let the Europeans control the fate of one of our most important industries.
The Europeans have envied the American tech industry for decades. In 2000, the European Council released with much fanfare a plan to “become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world” and to fend off American juggernauts such as Microsoft. The plan failed so miserably that proponents of European-style industrial policy should think twice about bringing these methods to the United States. American companies continue to lead the world in most important emerging information-based technologies. This time around, even the Netherlands, which historically has supported free markets more consistently than many of its neighbors, together with France recommended more coercive forms of protectionism now that subsidies and planning have failed.
The tech industry deserves plenty of skepticism, but it is also important for the American economy. Although social distancing and stay-at-home orders have become more controversial as the pandemic has dragged on, these options are only available because of important technological advances. Before the advent of Internet services such as video conferencing, cloud computing, and email, sending millions of workers home was unthinkable. In earlier pandemics, the choices available were to stop working entirely and face a complete loss of income or to stay at the workplace and risk succumbing to the disease. Many workers now can perform adequately at home, which has cushioned the economic fallout of the earlier measures to slow coronavirus’s spread. The tech industry is largely responsible for the U.S. economy’s new resilience to threats such as pandemics, which is just one reason why the EU wants its own champions in these areas.
Information technology’s other applications matter for our national defense as well. Quite a bit of what is developed in Silicon Valley can be used not only for entertainment or business, but also for our security. Just last month, the U.S. military tested new programs that will help commanders identify and defeat threats to the homeland, and the Army and Air Force are working together to bring the “Internet of things” to the battlefield. Most algorithms need to be tailored to perform specific tasks, but many of the processes used to select the next cat video you watch can be used for other purposes too. Software engineers who complain about military contracts make headlines, but the industry has won thousands of contracts from the Pentagon and national-security agencies.
Authoritarian regimes also see American social-media companies as a threat. As can be seen in China and elsewhere, many of America’s rivals try to restrict the information their people receive, which is much harder in an era of social media. Although they are not controlled by the U.S. government, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp often promote American interests simply by existing.
Even if some of these technologies fail to achieve their promise, or even if, on balance, further regulation is needed, Americans should be the ones determining if and how American companies are subject to government control — particularly if they should be broken up. The U.S. government should work to dissuade Brussels from putting out its “hit list,” even if Facebook and Twitter have once again screwed up their anti-disinformation strategy. Meanwhile, Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg must get their own houses in order: As geopolitical competition sharpens, they will be on more hit lists. They cannot afford to make more enemies.