Powerful voices within the conservative movement have argued that large, multinational tech companies have become too powerful and too political. Billion-dollar corporations such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook are increasingly important aspects of our lives. States are getting involved in bringing antitrust lawsuits against major tech corporations. For that reason, the question of what to do with Silicon Valley is important to nearly every American.
Clare Morell is the lead analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Big Tech Project. Before joining EPPC, she served as an adviser to then-attorney general William Barr, specifically working on the intersection between Big Tech and law enforcement. In an interview with National Review’s Sean-Michael Pigeon, Morell brings up the issue of antitrust, the real harms presented by tech companies, and the possibilities (and dangers) of bipartisanship on this issue.
Sean-Michael Pigeon: What is the general tenor of the Right on Big Tech corporations currently? A recent Politico piece says factions are breaking out in the GOP House. Are you seeing that, too?
Clare Morell: I think the general tenor on the right is that Big Tech needs to be held accountable for its censorship of conservative and religious voices and viewpoints. And that Big Tech causes serious negative harms on our country, particularly our children and their mental health, as well as harms facilitating illicit activity like sex trafficking and online child exploitation. But there is certainly a diversity of viewpoints on the right over what should be done about it. There are different views on what Section 230 [which gives special protections for hosting platforms] reform is necessary, if any, and different views on if and how antitrust law should be used to address Big Tech concerns.
SMP: Specifically, is this a souring on free-market principles generally, or is there a more tailored argument here?
CM: I think all the viewpoints would say they are for a free market, so I think there is a more tailored argument. There seems to be a growing sentiment that the current hands-off antitrust approach isn’t working, especially when it comes to Big Tech. Scholars have written that particularly when it comes to digital markets, far from being self-correcting, digital markets facilitate the creation and maintenance of uniquely durable market power, and a more interventionist antitrust approach is needed. All of these reforms are at the service of markets, making markets work better. So none of the right-leaning voices are anti-market.
SMP: Perhaps in the same vein, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple are called “monopolies” but are obviously separate companies. Do they compete, or are they acting in tandem together? What is unique to these companies that makes some view them as “monopolies”?
CM: Because they are dominant firms possessing massive shares of their respective markets. And digital markets have certain features that lead to uniquely durable market power. These digital giants can cast a long shadow, erect high barriers to entry, and achieve essentially private ecosystems, and make it very difficult for new entrants to break into the market. As Justice Clarence Thomas stated in a recent concurring opinion, “Ordinarily, the astronomical profit margins of these platforms — last year, Google brought in $182.5 billion total, $40.3 billion in net income — would induce new entrants into the market. That these companies have no comparable competitors highlights that the industries may have substantial barriers to entry.”
SMP: Is there any concern among antitrust advocates that traditionally left-wing politicians such as Elizabeth Warren have thrown their support behind breaking up Big Tech?
CM: Yes, I think there is concern. Left-wing politicians, though, have their own distinct sets of concerns they see with Big Tech. The Left wants to see Big Tech censor more conservative voices, more aggressively, whereas the Right wants to create more zones for free speech. So while there are areas of overlap and bipartisan agreement, the reasons behind their antitrust approaches are often different, and so the Right should be cautious in evaluating their proposals because the Left would like to make the government and the bureaucracy bigger and more powerful to deal with Big Tech.
SMP: Can you talk a bit about whether we’re seeing consumer harm, harm to employees, or other such problems within the tech industry?
CM: There are certainly other problems. Yes, there is consumer harm, mainly because of their censorship, content moderation, algorithmic amplification, and editorializing practices. People aren’t getting the service or product they signed up for if they are denied access to certain content or their own content is taken down or they can’t buy certain books on Amazon anymore. There are also harms to minors because of how these technologies are designed to be addictive, particularly for children, so they can engage their attention more and sell more advertisements. Another harm to minors is the illicit and inappropriate content online that Big Tech helps host and distribute. But Big Tech benefits from this addiction because of the ad revenue they make off of advertising to children and keeping children’s attention engaged. There have also been real consumer-harm suits brought because of the design of the technology itself. Like the case against Snapchat for a speed filter in its app that led to teenagers dying in a car crash going over 100 mph because they were trying to show off using Snapchat’s speed filter. There are certainly harms to employees as well, since conservative employees feel silenced for their opinions or that they can’t speak up. Other employees might fear retaliation if they disagree with Big Tech’s approaches for how it is using people’s data and targeting them or addicting them to their products, not for consumers’ good but so they can sell more ads and profit more off of them. And finally, I must restate again, that one of the other problems with Big Tech is how they facilitate violent crimes like human trafficking and online child exploitation. We simply cannot allow that to continue. In fact, the Texas Supreme Court ruled on Friday that Facebook can be held liable for sex traffickers that use its platform to recruit and prey on child victims, which helps pave the way for tech companies to be held liable when they’re used for criminal activity.
SMP: Tech companies are left-leaning, some of it just because all the employees are left-wing. How should conservatives approach and combat the pervasive cultural bias of Silicon Valley as a whole?
CM: That is a big question, and I am not sure I know the full answer. I think we can start by providing alternative spaces and platforms for conservatives — viable alternatives where conservatives can speak and consume news and information freely. I also think it starts in our own homes, with how we raise our children to view and understand the world. And we invest in our schools and communities and fight those cultural battles on the front lines of our neighborhoods and schools to protect our ideas and ideals. I also think in light of their bias, we need to be informed consumers and think seriously about where we give our money, where we are purchasing products from, or where we are giving our data. I don’t think we should try to find a government solution for a cultural issue. But we do want to make sure our government defends the public square and our right to make our views and opinions known there.
SMP: If antitrust legislation were to pass and be implemented properly, what is the ideal end goal?
CM: Preserving competition in these markets so viable conservative options can compete and start-ups can enter. As well as protecting consumers from harm since when a market is able to become so highly concentrated with dominant digital firms that exercise so much power, they completely control consumers’ experience and inhibit their ability to switch to or use an alternative.