Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other “big tech” companies have come to play central roles in modern society, discourse, and governance. This trend has taken shape over many years, but the public’s attention has focused much more acutely on it thanks to recent events: the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath; the worldwide outbreak of Covid-19; investigations of major tech companies by the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission, and Congress; and more.
These controversies have spurred difficult conversations about tech companies, their technologies, and our government. They are difficult because the companies’ products, and the government’s possible policy responses to them, raise new questions and re-open timeless ones.
To help policymakers and the public think through these issues, National Affairs has commissioned a series of essays by conservative and libertarian experts on the various ways internet-platform companies affect modern life. We have framed these essays in terms of the different kinds of “power” tech companies wield—or are accused of wielding—in American life:
Geopolitical Power by Klon Kitchen
Market Power by Joshua D. Wright and Jan M. Rybnicek
Political Power by Jon Askonas and Ari Schulman
Cultural Power by Christine Rosen
We do not offer these essays as comprehensive or authoritative answers. In fact, you will find that the essays often disagree with one another, implicitly or explicitly, in their analyses. That is a feature, not a bug, of the series. We offer these essays not to end conversations, but to begin them.
Technology is always a key variable in geostrategic change. The sail boat, gun powder, the steam engine, the internal-combustion engine, nuclear power, modern communications and information technology – these and other innovations revolutionized their respective eras and changed the fortunes of nations. So it is today. The so-called “fourth industrial revolution” is shaping and re-shaping the contours of the emerging global order. Even more, the companies at the heart of this revolution are fast becoming powerful geopolitical stakeholders that often challenge the authority, sovereignty, and the capacity of governments. Three trends have special prominence in driving this change.
Conservatives are at a crossroads in their relationship with big government and big tech. It is, as Ronald Reagan so eloquently put it during his 1964 campaign speech for Barry Goldwater, a time for choosing. One path not only requires, but champions, expanded government control of tech firms for the "greater good" designed by regulators and bureaucrats. The other path relies upon competition, markets, and the rule of law to foster individual liberty and economic growth. Conservatives, rightly frustrated by digital platforms’ poor treatment, are increasingly attracted to the former path. The benefits of that path are obvious and satisfying in the short run, at least in part because they provide instant gratification and a healthy dose of retribution. But it is the wrong path. As Reagan correctly observed, a government cannot control the economy without controlling its people. The choice before us will have immense consequences for the role of government and the rule of law for generations to come. It is important to get it right.
The Left argues that tech companies must limit misinformation and hate speech on their online platforms. The Right argues for free speech, and that the platforms do not wield their censorship power fairly. This essay argues that each view bears an important partial truth, but that the approaches they advocate do not hold much of a chance of preserving truly free speech and open debate on the Internet over the long term. For each lives in its own sort of denial about the nature of speech moderation, what it takes to make moderation legitimate, and whether that is possible in a virtual town square that spans the entire globe. Our aim, then, is to show a way past this impasse. The two views are not quite so far apart as they seem, and a resolution to the online speech debate will require understanding what each has to contribute to the other. But reducing the online platforms’ political power will require accepting that speech platforms cannot be strictly apolitical.
The longer we live with the large Internet platforms, the more clearly we see their cultural impacts—for better and for worse. We need to take these impacts seriously, because a platform’s architecture can profoundly affect the users’ habits and ideas generally. Recent regulatory proposals try to grapple with these problems, but there are limits to what legal mandates can achieve. Instead, we should approach the platforms’ cultural impacts like other companies’ environmental impacts: by requiring the companies to think seriously about their impacts, so that they—and we—can try to minimize the harms while promoting the benefits.