In our divided nation, there is a rare consensus from both the left and the right: some of our technology companies have become too powerful. They know too much about us, and we know too little of their inner workings.
They know where we are, where we are going, what we are doing, and some can even listen to what we are talking about. They control what information to distribute, how fast, and to whom. They dictate that we see, read, and think in the ways they deem suitable.
The more we use their services, the more control they have over us, and the less likely we are to escape their manipulation. In other words: big tech companies are imposing digital totalitarianism on us, and we must take action to dismantle this tyranny and set ourselves free.
1. Breaking Up Big Tech
First, the U.S. government should break up tech companies that have near-monopoly power. For example, Google controls more than 90 percent of the U.S. search market. About 85 percent of smartphones worldwide run on Google’s Android operating system. Google also collects one in every three dollars spent on digital advertising.
Google maintains that it achieves such domination due to the superiority of its products. An antitrust lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice last week, however, alleges that Google engages in anti-competitive practices to achieve and maintain its near-monopoly, such as paying billions of dollars to “distributors like mobile-phone makers, wireless carriers and web browsers to make Google their default search engine.” These exclusionary contracts have made it next to impossible for smaller competitors to gain any meaningful market share.
Moreover, Google uses its market dominance to serve as the world’s biggest censor. According to professor and researcher Robert Epstein, Google maintains at least 10 blacklists it uses to block websites, individuals, and even words. Robert wrote, “When Google’s employees or algorithms decide to block our access to information about a news item, political candidate or business, opinions and votes can shift, reputations can be ruined and businesses can crash and burn.”
Perhaps because the majority of people at Google lean left, it appears that conservatives are more likely to be censored than liberals by Google. Dennis Prager, whose educational Prager University videos get 1 billion views a year through YouTube, complains that YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, “has at various times placed about 100 of our videos on its restricted list.”
Some of the restricted Prager University videos include “Why Don’t Feminists Fight for Muslim Women?” by Somali-American activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and “Are the Police Racist?” by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald. Prager believes the only reason these videos are restricted because they represent conservative viewpoints.
Prager University sued Google for violating its First Amendment rights, but a judge in California ruled in Google’s favor, stating “private companies like YouTube and its parent company Google are not bound by the First Amendment.” If an influential organization like the Prager University can’t hold Google accountable for its censorship, what recourse do ordinary consumers have?
Using another browser likely would not alleviate this issue either. According to Epstein, major browsers such as Safari and Firefox “check Google’s quarantine list before they send you to a website. Chrome, Android, Firefox, and Safari currently carry about 92 percent of all browser traffic in the United States — 74 percent worldwide — and these numbers are increasing.” This means that a site blocked by Google will have no means to survive because it is likely blocked by other major browsers, too.
Since there is practically no escape from Google’s control in the current setting, breaking it up is the only way to foster competition, empower consumer choices, and preserve the free exchange of ideas necessary to sustain a constitutional republic. CNBC’s Jim Creamer said breaking up Google will bring more value to the company’s shareholders because the sum of parts is worth more than the company’s current valuation as a whole. Breaking up Google seems to be a win-win for all.
2. Re-evaluate Section 230 Immunity
The second action we should take is for the U.S. Congress to make big tech firms earn their Section 230 immunity. In the early days of the internet, U.S. Congress enacted the Communications Decency Act as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, to protect children from access to sexually explicit materials on the internet.
Section 230 of CDA states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” This language provides internet companies the protection they need: they can moderate indecent content on their platform without being classified as publishers because publishers are liable for the content they publish and can be sued for libel.
There is no doubt that the shield of Section 230 has fostered the incredible growth of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other such companies. Today, they are the most powerful media companies in the world. Yet they continue to argue they shouldn’t be treated like publishers because they do not hire journalists to report and write about the news. This argument doesn’t hold water.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter do not need to hire journalists because millions — even billions — of global users write and report news, create content, and share information on these sites for free. While these internet companies do not have to pay for their content, they do hire armies of editors or what they call content moderators to review content, decide which content will be blocked, which will be allowed to distribute, and how fast and how wide the distribution will be.
The influence of these companies isn’t limited to the cyber world, either. What’s trending on these platforms and the ideological tone set by a small group of influencers on these platforms have an outsized impact on what’s reported in legacy media.
According to Pew Research, only one in five Americans use Twitter and only 10 percent of Twitter users are responsible for 80 percent of the tweets. In her resignation letter, former New York Times opinion page editor Bari Weiss wrote, “Twitter has become its [NYT] ultimate editor,” so much so that “stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences…history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.”
These internet companies may compete against each other for market share and number of users, but they often work together to censor ideas they do not agree with while reinforcing the same ideology across their platforms. For instance, when Twitter prevented The New York Post and its readers from sharing the Post’s story of Hunter Biden’s emails, Facebook intentionally “slowed” the distribution of the same story; left-leaning media took the cue and didn’t cover the story either. The combined effect is that countless American voters were deprived of the opportunity of reading the Post’s story and making an independent judgment about either the credibility of the story or the presidential candidate involved.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley concludes: “With Section 230, tech companies get a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys: complete exemption from traditional publisher liability in exchange for providing a forum free of political censorship… But big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain.”
To solve this problem, Hawley introduced an Ending Internet Censorship bill, which will let small to medium-sized internet firms continue to enjoy immunity. But large internet firms will have to earn Section 230 immunity by proving their algorithms and content removal practices are “politically neutral” to auditors at the Federal Trade Commission every two years. This bill provides the most practical and least harmful way to address political censorship by big tech, without repealing Section 230. The bill has generated bipartisan support. It’s time for Congress to move forward with it.
3. Insist On Openness From Tech Companies
Last but not least, we should demand transparency from these companies. If Twitter and companies alike say they must block a post for violating their standards, they should at least be transparent about what standards they adhere to. Andy Kessler of The Wall Street Journal wrote, “Each banning action, like removing doctors’ Covid advice from YouTube, must come with a specific explanation, else leave the post up.”
An especially chilling example is the way Merriam-Webster rushed to change its entry on “sexual preference,” labeling it “offensive” right after Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, accused Judge Amy Coney Barrett of being “anti-LGBTQ” for saying it during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Before this exchange, people from both the left and the right used this term widely because no one deemed it “offensive.”
Merriam-Webster didn’t explain why they made the change and didn’t timestamp when they made it. Six months or a year from now, most people will forget about this incident. When current and future generations search for the definition of “sexual preference,” they will assume that the word has always been “offensive” because Merriam-Webster says so. The power and speed Merriam-Webster possesses to change minds should send chills down the spine of any freedom-loving person.
In his brilliant book “1984,” George Orwell warned us that this is how totalitarianism imposes mind control on people: by falsifying records and rewriting history. “If all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth” and “whoever controls the past controls the present and whoever controls the present controls the future.”
In the Merriam-Webster case, one way to add some transparency in the future is to require the site to always include time and date when a change is made, and an explanation of why the change is made, next to the word so future readers will have a clear understanding.
Time is running out. If Americans want to protect the free flow and exchange of ideas and dismantle digital totalitarianism in our country, we must act now.