Second of a Series
Here, the People Rule—At Least That’s The Way It’s Supposed To Be
In Part One of this series, we looked back at the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who was largely responsible for the anti-trust case against Standard Oil, which culminated in the 1911 breakup of that monopolistic company. In so doing, TR set the pattern: The sovereignty of the American people would never be subverted by corporate control—at least, that’s what he hoped.
In fact, through most of the 20th century, the Rooseveltian trust-busters were vigilant, across the spectrum of the economy. For instance, Hollywood, in its Golden Age, was regularly scrutinized by the Justice Department—and occasionally trust-busted. Ditto the American Medical Association.
However, late in the last century, the economic environment began to change. In 1978, Robert Bork published The Antitrust Paradox: A Policy at War with Itself, which argued on behalf of corporations; that’s the intellectual tide that has washed over both Republicans and Democrats in the last four decades.
We might stipulate that Bork made some good points 40 years ago; perhaps, indeed, the pendulum had swung too far on behalf of anti-trust enforcement. And yet now we can also see that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, toward the power of big corporations to do exactly as they please.
Indeed, even The Economist, a distinctly globalist publication—it opposed Brexit, for example—is now starting to admit that corporate dominion has grown too dominant. In May, a cover story was headlined, “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data: The data economy demands a new approach to anti-trust rules.
As the London-based magazine noted, five companies dominate the world’s information market: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. They are also the five most valuable companies in the world, making $25 billion in just the first quarter of 2017. As the magazine noted, “Amazon captures half of all dollars spent online in America. Google and Facebook accounted for almost all the revenue growth in digital advertising in America last year.”
The Economist continued, “Such dominance has prompted calls for the tech giants to be broken up, as Standard Oil was in the early 20th century.” And while the influential publication has traditionally taken a hands-off, laissez-faire stance, it now concedes that the problem has grown so huge that something must be done; it called for “a rebooting [of] anti-trust for the information age.”
Virgil should note that he is no enemy of people’s getting rich, or even of firms’ getting big—if that is, they are properly regulated to protect the public interest. And so the mere fact that the Google co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, are each worth around $43 billion, or that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is worth around $70 billion, or that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has about $82 billion to his name, shouldn’t be, in and of itself, a concern.
However, the rub comes when great personal or corporate wealth is not restrained, as it then converts itself into unchecked political power, as when Zuckerberg lobbies Washington—and seemingly leverages his giant site—for liberal policies, including open borders. Even more flagrantly, back in 2013, Bezos took lobbying to a new extreme when he simply bought The Washington Post; in the last four years, the “Bezos Post” has drastically amped up its quotient of Trump-bashing and Republican-bashing.
In other words, if the wealthy can use their wealth to cook up political deals to get even richer, or more powerful—well, that’s bad.
As we all know, this cronyistic cycle of upward income distribution is now entrenched; the 2008 bailout of giant Wall Street firms is perhaps the most shrieking example of plutocrats tapping the public purse to gain even more pelf.
And yet as The Economist points out, West Coast tech firms are even larger, and more powerful, than the East Coast financial firms. So something should be done.
Interestingly, back in July, it was reported that Stephen K. Bannon—the former top strategist in the Trump White House who has now returned to his role as executive chairman of Breitbart News—had urged the White House to seek the regulation of the giant Silicon Valley social networks. That is, regulate them like a utility.
That’s an interesting idea, and it’s actually akin to what President Theodore Roosevelt had in mind back in 1903 when he established the Department of Commerce (in 1914, those regulatory duties were transferred to the Federal Trade Commission).
However, for reasons outside the scope of this article, in the early 20th century, the U.S. settled more on a path of anti-trust action, not utility-style regulation, to deal with the monopolistic threat of big business. And yet since then, as we have seen, anti-trust, too, has fallen away.
From MAGA to GAFA
So now we live in a country where the big tech companies can pretty much do as they please. Let us count the ways: They don’t pay much in the way of U.S. taxes, preferring to stash their cash offshore; they often pay only serf wages, even as they trample the middle class and Main Street; they agitate against heartland industries; they disdain U.S. sovereignty; they have even been accused of shielding terrorists and child pornographers, even as they have sought to reject anti-jihad groups.
And most recently, they have been accused of helping steer the politically correct posse that seeks to censor—or worse—the authentic voices of many Americans. In fact, the tech companies needn’t be accused of this censorship, because they proudly proclaim that they do it.
Thus we can see: The hard-won freedoms of the American tradition, including those of the First Amendment, don’t mean much if some billionaire geek can simply delete them.
Some might insist that private companies have a right to do what they want to private customers—that the dictates of the free market should give them the right to do as they wish. To be sure, we should believe that the virtue of personal freedom should extend to tech titans. And yet at the same time, these are publicly traded companies, protected by our laws, and operating on an Internet that was created with public money (by the Pentagon, back in the 1960s).
The tech companies are, in fact, by their own desire, common carriers. We can add that “common carrier” is a well-understood legal term, dating even before English common law, all the way back to Roman times. Common carriers have a duty to serve the public—all of it. And so today, these companies should of course be good corporate citizens and treat everyone fairly. That’s the American Way.
Of course, some might assert that, ironically enough, the tech companies are doing their victims a kind of favor—by removing them from the danger zone of being tattled on the techsters.
Without a doubt, it’s obviously an abuse that tech companies can censor at will and without recourse, and yet someday we might wake up and realize that those same techies haven’t just been censoring their users, but have actually gone even further, to informing on their users. That is, we might learn that techsters have been handing over all their data to government authorities, or even to such left-wing activist groups as the notoriously biased Southern Poverty Law Center. If so, many might come to realize that while being thrown off a social network is bad, staying on, and being tattle-tales, would be even worse.
The only answer to such possible abuse is closer supervision, not letting letting left-wingers pick political winners and losers.
Fortunately, some Republicans are starting to wake up to the danger. That is, they are looking beyond the tech happy-talk of the lobbyists and propagandists and seeing that Silicon Valley could be posing a serious threat to free speech, as well as to the GOP.
One such is Sen. Ted Cruz, who has expressed concerns about “large tech companies putting their thumb on the scales and skewing political and public discourse.” He asked, “What can be done to protect the first amendment rights of American citizens?”
Meanwhile, on the scholarly front, other voices on the right are joining the chorus of concern about concentrated corporate power, beyond just the damage to free speech. One such warning comes from the University of Denver’s David Ciepley, writing in the Trumpian journal American Affairs; Cieply warns that unchecked companies can hurt both workers and consumers: “Monopoly is … a double burden, producing fewer good incomes in an economy of overpriced goods.”
Indeed, as we drill down on the dangers of corporate monopoly, we can observe that the worst offenders are Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. We might even turn those four companies into an acronym, GAFA. And yes, GAFA is the antithesis of MAGA—Making America Great Again.
We’ll get to GAFA in future installments; however, in the meantime, we might note that plenty of other tech companies have the same orientation—which tells us why a comprehensive solution is needed.
For instance, we all know that Twitter makes a habit of deleting unwanted voices and also jiggering its algorithms. Earlier this year, one writer for Forbes headlined his piece, “How Twitter’s New Censorship Tools Are The Pandora’s Box Moving Us Towards The End Of Free Speech.”
The same closed-minded spirit applies to others, too. For instance, Eventbrite recently told former Breitbart News writer Milo Yiannopoulos that he could no longer use its platform. And Uber and Airbnb are practicing the same sort of discrimination.
Yet the biggest threat comes from the biggest companies. And so in the next installments, we will look at the Big Four—Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple—the GAFA Coalition.
But before we do that, we should take a closer look at the possible threat posed by these new technologies. As we shall see, we’ve had plenty of warning—and so should travel into the future with our eyes wide open.
Next: The Warning Signs