For several years, conservatives have expressed concern that big tech companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, are suppressing right-leaning content. Even though conservatives often exaggerate it, there is no doubt about the anti-conservative bias of these companies, but that is not what I want to discuss in this article.
Rather, if big tech companies are biased against some ideas and are suppressing content on ideological grounds, then it’s bad even though they are non-state actors. In fact, the claim I want to make is even weaker: Anyone who would worry about this kind of bias from the state should also worry about it when it comes from big tech companies.
This is a very weak claim, which I think should be largely uncontroversial, but many people deny it, including some conservatives and many libertarians. In particular, it doesn’t imply that big tech companies should be regulated by the government, which requires a separate argument.
Indeed, as conservatives often point out, the existence of a market imperfection doesn’t mean government intervention is justified, if only because it may actually make the problem worse. But as many people don’t seem to understand, especially among libertarians, the fact that government intervention is not warranted doesn’t mean there is no problem.
It’s also a vague claim that, in order to be acted upon, must be more precise. My claim, which should be uncontroversial, is that if you think it would be bad if the government were ideologically biased and suppressed content for ideological reasons, you should also think it’s bad if big tech companies do it.
This leaves a lot of room for rational disagreement about what constitutes bias and what counts as suppressing content for ideological reasons. In particular, the issue of fairness in algorithms is very complicated, so reasonable people disagree about what a fair algorithm is. Fortunately, I don’t need to resolve this question here.
It’s enough for the point I want to make that, among the people who defend big tech companies by saying that even if the accusations of bias are true, it’s not a problem, most would protest if the government did what those companies allegedly do. The idea I’m attacking is that censorship is only bad if it comes from the government, but that as long as it’s done by private companies, there is nothing to see.
This is a ridiculous notion that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and you should acknowledge that, regardless of your view about what constitutes bias in algorithms and whether big tech companies should be regulated. I know that some people, especially among libertarians, think it makes them smart to believe only censorship from government is bad, but they clearly have not thought this through deeply enough.
Censorship Distorts the Marketplace of Ideas
The people who argue that it’s okay for big tech companies to suppress content for ideological reasons oppose state censorship on the grounds that it prevents the marketplace of ideas — which they believe maximizes the probability that people will discover the truth and settle on it through rational debate — from working as it’s supposed to. The problem is if that’s the reason for opposing state censorship (and I think it’s a good reason), nothing about censorship makes it bad when it originates from the government but unproblematic as long as it comes from private companies. Indeed, while it’s true the government can distort the marketplace of ideas, so can private companies.
For instance, if Google makes right-wing content harder to find, it stacks the deck in favor of the left because people are more likely to be exposed to more left-wing content. Similarly, if Twitter hides conservative content or promotes liberal content, the former is less likely to be found.
Big tech companies don’t even have to completely suppress right-wing content to distort the marketplace of ideas. Even a pro-liberal or anti-conservative bias that comes way short of the systematic suppression of right-wing content would introduce a distortion. Of course, as long as big tech companies are biased in the relevant way, it doesn’t matter which ideologies are penalized by it, it will distort the marketplace of ideas all the same.
The people who defend big tech companies argue it’s not the same as state censorship because if people are unhappy about what those companies do, they can always stop using them and use other platforms instead, whereas people can’t opt out of the government. If the state bans the expression of certain views and you express them anyway, it can use violence to compel you to stop or imprison you, but Google or Twitter can’t do that.
However, since the companies in question are de facto monopolies, it’s not actually true that if you’re unhappy with big tech companies you can just use another platform. Even if it were true, it would be irrelevant.
Big Tech Companies Have Monopolies, Which Matters
First, it’s not always true that if you’re unhappy with big tech companies, you can simply move to other platforms. For instance, if you’re a journalist and want to promote your work, there is simply no viable alternative to Twitter at the moment. No other microblogging platform comes even close to having the number of users Twitter does, and most of the alternatives are hotbeds of extremism.
People who reply that if Twitter were so bad, a viable alternative would have emerged are just missing the point. Of course, it’s possible that if Twitter’s behavior were really egregious, it would lose its dominant position to other platforms, but its monopoly power means it can get away with a lot without endangering that position. Again, it isn’t necessary that Twitter completely suppress certain viewpoints for bias to distort the marketplace.
Moreover, even when there are viable alternatives, as long as the vast majority of people are not using them, their existence is completely irrelevant to the argument against big tech company censorship. For instance, the existence of Google alternatives doesn’t change the fact that more than 90 percent of online searches are made on Google. Thus, if Google’s search results are ideologically biased, the marketplace of ideas will be distorted. The fact that people could use another search engine — assuming they even know they were victims of manipulation — is neither here nor there.
Some even go further and claim that even if big tech companies are somewhat biased against conservatives and penalize their content to some extent, conservatives should be grateful to them because without platforms such as YouTube, they wouldn’t be able to reach as many people. This last part is probably true, but the argument is still ridiculous.
Suppose your electricity company, which has a monopoly in your area, charged Democrats more than Republicans. I don’t think anyone would say Democrats should be grateful because without that company, they wouldn’t even have the electricity. It doesn’t matter that thanks to big tech companies, conservatives can reach more people. As long as those companies are biased against conservatives and penalize their content, it will still distort the marketplace of ideas in favor of the left.
Modern Libertarians Don’t Follow Classical Liberalism
The irony is that while the people who defend big tech companies in that way usually see themselves as part of the classical liberal tradition, the great authors in that tradition have all insisted government was not the only threat — or even the main threat — to freedom. The obsession with the threat to freedom by state power, to the exclusion of almost everything else, is something only found among contemporary libertarians. It was foreign to the thinkers they claim as their intellectual forebears.
Also, despite what they might say, it can’t just be explained by the fact that state power has grown immensely since the 19th century, if only because so has the power of corporations. Unfortunately, judging from what they say, most of the people who claim private censorship is unproblematic have never read the authors who founded the tradition they claim as their own.
For instance, John Stuart Mill, who is arguably the most famous thinker in the liberal tradition, wrote in “On Liberty” that society’s “means of tyrannizing [were] not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries.” Alexis de Tocqueville also recognized the threat to freedom non-state actors could pose when, in “Democracy in America,” he wrote that even though speech enjoys a very high level of legal protection in the United States and the anti-religious are not prohibited from circulating, freedom of opinion “does not exist in America” because the tyranny of the majority “actually removes the wish of publishing them.” “In the United States,” he wrote, “no one is punished for this sort of works, but no one is induced to write them.”
Of course, these passages are about the stifling effect of social pressure on people’s thoughts and behaviors, which is different from, although not entirely unrelated to, what is going on with big tech companies. But they demonstrate that great authors in the liberal tradition, but not many contemporary libertarians who claim to represent this tradition today, understood the state is not the only or even necessarily the worst threat to freedom.
Once you recognize that, it becomes impossible to cut short the discussion about Google manipulating search results by saying: It’s a private company, so there is nothing to see. Not only is this not a good argument, it’s not even an argument — only the libertarian equivalent of reciting the credo for a Catholic.
Ideas From All Sides Should Be Accessible
In a speech he delivered in 1922, the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was hardly a conservative, put the point in a way that is more directly relevant to the question I’m discussing in this article, by noting that it was “clear that thought is not free if all the arguments on one side of a controversy are perpetually presented as attractively as possible, while the arguments on the other side can only be discovered by diligent search.” Obviously, big tech companies didn’t exist when Russell wrote that, but what he says about the importance that arguments from all sides be readily accessible could easily have been said in a debate about Google’s manipulation of search results.
Thus, there can be little doubt that were they alive today, the great thinkers in the liberal tradition would not agree with the myopic obsession with state censorship displayed by some of the people who claim to be their intellectual heirs. You can decide that, unless it’s done by the state, it’s not really censorship, but that’s a purely semantic point. The notion that censorship, broadly construed to include even ideological bias that doesn’t rise to the level of systematic suppression of certain viewpoints, is okay as long as government isn’t the one doing it is preposterous.
Not only conservatives but anyone who is attached to freedom of expression should embrace this. In fact, although it can be leveraged against big tech companies that are biased in favor of liberals, this line of argument also has implications that conservatives may less readily welcome. For instance, it means that how rich people use their money to promote their ideas may also be a problem, insofar as it distorts the marketplace of ideas.
It doesn’t imply the government should restrict the ways people can use their wealth to promote their ideas, but if conservatives want to protest against big tech companies on the ground that, by suppressing right-wing content, they are distorting the marketplace of ideas, they can’t talk as if this couldn’t also be a concern.