The clash between conservatives and Big Tech has revealed a rift separating those who feel victimized by the social media giants and free-market thinkers who have long guided the political right.
The populist right says institutions such as the American Enterprise Institute think tank and conservative stalwarts such as Sen. Mike Lee of Utah have abandoned them on tech companies’ aggression, but critics say those claims cannot be further from the truth.
After Google threatened to remove the Federalist, a conservative website, from its advertising platform this month, Federalist co-founder Ben Domenech tweeted that no scholars from AEI, a Washington free-market think tank, or the libertarian Cato Institute came to his defense. He said the think tanks are “wholly owned subsidiaries of Big Tech,” criticism that Sen. Ted Cruz then amplified on Twitter.
“This is a serious problem. Big Tech is like the [Chinese Communist Party]: they both use $$ to buy silence, acquiescence, or support,” the Texas Republican tweeted. “Every think tank with integrity should wean themselves [off] both CCP & Big Tech $$ so they can have true objectivity & independence.”
AEI told The Washington Times it has a longstanding tradition of not discussing its donors and noted it does not do contract research, which serves to create a firewall between the integrity of their work and those funding it.
“AEI operates independently of any political party and has never held institutional positions,” said spokeswoman Phoebe Keller.
The Cato Institute did not respond to requests for comment. Free-market allies of the two think tanks were less laconic.
Criticisms of Cato, AEI and others are about getting attention and not about finding solutions, said Jesse Blumenthal, Stand Together vice president and Charles Koch Institute director of technology and innovation. Mr. Blumenthal said the attacks on the free-market thinkers are about getting clicks, viewers and voters in the November elections.
“It is childish and incorrect to assume that serious scholars who have spent years of their lives studying these issues are simply doing the bidding of particular companies,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “I think that that type of ad hominem attack is lazy and the people who are making it know better, quite frankly.”
The struggle over how Republicans should respond to Big Tech is expected to become more bitter in the run-up to the 2020 election.
Fox News personality Tucker Carlson is the Big Tech critic with perhaps the largest megaphone in media. Mr. Carlson this month accused Mr. Lee of ignoring social media companies’ trampling on Americans’ rights and said he hopes the Utah Republican is forced out of the Senate in the 2022 election by someone who challenges Big Tech head-on.
“Lee chairs the Senate antitrust subcommittee, he is the man who could do something to protect you from Google, but Lee has not bothered to do that,” Mr. Carlson told his viewers. “Instead, Mike Lee repeatedly has taken the side of the Big Tech companies over your constitutional rights, the constitutional rights Mike Lee has sworn to uphold and protect but refuses to.”
Mr. Lee responded to Mr. Carlson in a lengthy statement published on his website that rebuts what he says are inaccuracies by Mr. Carlson.
Mr. Lee told The Washington Times that conservatives should be alarmed that the tech sector is large, wealthy, powerful and opposed to their beliefs. He said his subcommittee recently held a hearing looking at whether companies such as Amazon and Google are violating antitrust law.
“Look, this is a tough issue. There are no easy answers here. I don’t believe those attacking me are doing so in bad faith,” Mr. Lee said in a statement. “But we need to be realistic about what our options are. … I just don’t think a Fairness Doctrine for the Internet is the way to go here.”