The Trump administration has been tough for Big Tech. With accusations of censorship, calls for antitrust action, and endless congressional hearings, the axe hanging over major technology companies like Facebook and Google seems like a permanent fixture these days. But onlookers shouldn’t be so quick to cheer on the government hangman. While Big Tech is a convenient scapegoat for the downsides of disruption, Big Brother would alter the Internet permanently for the worse.
On Wednesday, representatives from Google, Reddit, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to defend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a provision that shields platforms from liability for illegal or defamatory content posted by its users. Busybody politicians from both sides of the aisle are increasingly eager to remove this legal cornerstone of the Internet, usually in the name of cracking down on crime and censorship.
Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, for example, introduced legislation this summer that would revoke 230 protection for large tech platforms “unless they submit to an external audit that proves by clear and convincing evidence that their algorithms and content-removal practices are politically neutral.” That may seem like a fine idea at first glance, but would conservatives like Mr. Hawley trust a government arbiter appointed by a President Kamala Harris to be Uncle Sam’s censorship czar? Probably not.
Rather, if platforms were held liable for the content their users posted, they would likely be even more aggressive in taking down content, for fear of being dragged to civil or even criminal court. This could result in less political speech, not more, on the Internet. Even worse, platforms would have little incentive to cooperate with law enforcement, since reporting illegal activities could subject them to prosecution, sweeping crime under the rug.
That’s not to say that any platform is perfect when it comes to moderating content. At Wednesday’s hearings, the witnesses, including representatives from Google and Reddit, universally acknowledged improvements could be made. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also held private dinners with prominent conservative leaders to bring their perspective to the table and delivered a speech at Georgetown University this week on the importance of preserving free expression on the Internet.
Yet, while Big Tech is eager to admit its shortcomings and make voluntary improvements, Big Brother’s only tool is government force — threatening to nip private sector innovation in the bud during the Internet’s relative infancy. Some politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, have been calling for an old-fashioned breakup of big tech companies, resemblant to the federal government’s breakup of Standard Oil or AT&T.
States are getting in on the action now, too. Antitrust investigations have been announced by attorney generals of 48 states for Google and 40 states for Facebook since September. Both investigations were announced in flashy press conferences. Google’s investigation was an especially made-for-TV moment set on the steps of the Supreme Court.
Usually, law enforcement officials do not dramatically announce a probe until they have results, instead opting to keep their investigations confidential. This might suggest a more political motivation for law enforcement to look like the good guys going after big, bad tech companies, rather than a responsible use of taxpayers’ dollars.
Governments should be careful in wielding the 20th century tool of antitrust on 21st century technology. Facebook, for example, does not have a monopoly on a singular resource that can easily be redistributed to regional contributors. After all, if there was a Facebook competitor that was a carbon copy of the social media site, what would be the point of either platform existing?
Moreover, forcing platforms to stick to a singular functionality could threaten their profitability and make the user experience worse. It is precisely the targeted suggestions that Google Search offers, for example, that makes the engine so appealing to consumers and advertisers alike.
Indeed, breaking up Big Tech would be a major blow to innovation, as the household-name companies we know and use are investing in the future. Facebook famously purchased the virtual reality company Oculus in 2014, and Uber even aims to bring commercial flying cars to cities as early as 2023.
Google is well-known for internally investing in technologies that on their own are not yet profitable such as YouTube, fiber broadband, self-driving cars, and artificial intelligence projects. Amazon is the world leader on investing in the future, spending a whopping $23 billion on research and development in 2017.
Let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. Platforms like Google and Facebook have provided search, video, email and messenger to billions at absolutely no cost. Marketplaces like Amazon and sharing economy companies like Uber are offering goods and services for cheaper than ever before. The Internet is the strongest evidence of free enterprise working for consumers. The government’s penchant for destruction threatens this progress, undermining the net’s promise to bring humanity together for good.
• Casey Given is the executive director of Young Voices.