Virgil: Elizabeth Warren’s Luck on Tech

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 08: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), one of several Democrats running for the party's nomination in the 2020 presidential race, speaks during a campaign event, March 8, 2019 in the Queens borough of New York City. On Friday, Warren released a new regulatory proposal aimed at …
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VIRGIL

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) might not be your favorite politician, but somebody likes her, that’s for sure. Or maybe she’s just lucky.

How else to explain the harmonic convergence she enjoyed on March 11? That’s when Facebook, one of those tech giants that Warren has been attacking for being too powerful, clumsily proved her point: The company used its power to squelch Warren’s advertising, if only for a brief time. So now, Elizabeth Warren, the aggrieved party, is on the offensive.  

As we know, Warren had been having a rocky time of it. President Donald Trump has been labeling her as Pocahontas for years, and evidently, his needling got under her skin, such that she did something dumb. In October, she announced with great fanfare that she had taken a blood test that revealed — wait for it —that she’s 1/1024 Native American. Or maybe not even that much.   

Then came the revelation in February that, contrary to her claims, she had at least once used her fake Native American status on an official form. So yeah, maybe Fauxcohontas is the better name for her. 

All that bad publicity hurt her presidential campaign, which she announced on February 9. Today, according to RealClearPolitics, she’s running a distant fourth among Democratic 2020 hopefuls. And headlines such as this, from Axios on March 18, won’t help: “1 big thing: Elizabeth Warren’s slow start.’

Yet at the same time, Warren can’t be written off; she is, after all, a U.S. Senator from a relatively large state, Massachusetts, which punches well above its weight in terms of fundraising and media power. 

Moreover, in her emphasis on issues, she’s been getting attention from the political tastemakers. For instance, on March 8, the same Axios blared an extolling headline: “1 big thing: Elizabeth Warren and 2020’s biggest ideas.”  

Indeed, that same day (March 8), Warren, playing up her strength, posted a statement: “It’s time to break up Amazon, Google, and Facebook.” As she detailed, she wants to use antitrust enforcement to stop mergers, including mergers that have already happened, such as Facebook’s purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram.

Warren also argued for declaring the big social networks to be utilities; that’s a legal term of art, which we’ll come back to. 

A few days later, CBS News’ Ed O’Keefe pressed her about breaking up the tech companies: “Who is the federal government to tell these companies they have to do that?” In response, Warren was crisp:

There’s antitrust law, that’s been around for more than 100 years. And the federal government has done this many times. For example, we broke up Standard Oil, broke up the great monopolies of the late 19th century and early 20th century. And the reason for that is so that we can keep a competitive economy.

In other words, Warren seems to be as serious about antitrust as was our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. Indeed, the Bay State lawmaker even went so far as to say that if TR were available, she would want him to be her running mate. (TR died in 1919.)

Virgil is sure that many on the right, as well as on the left, will cheer for Warren’s tough talk on tech. After all, just about every day now, some outfit like Breitbart News scoops a story on Silicon Valley censorship.  

So as we can see, Warren has been setting up a pretty good pile of political dynamite under the Tech Lords. And then Facebook provided the match. 

In the early evening of March 11, Politico exploded this headline: “Facebook takes down Elizabeth Warren ads calling for breakup of Facebook.” 

Later that night, Warren pounced in a tweet:

You shouldn’t have to contact Facebook’s publicists in order for them to decide to “allow robust debate” about Facebook. They shouldn’t have that much power.

In another tweet, she added, “I want a social media marketplace that isn’t dominated by a single censor. #BreakUpBigTech.”  

We might also add, recalling another of Warren’s policy planks: If the social media companies were ever to be categorized as utilities then they would have to abide by so-called common carrier rules, thereby preventing, hopefully, the sort of censorship that Facebook has tried to impose.  

Warren’s thundering message was echoed in headlines around the world. The Guardian, widely read in the U.S., put up this admiring headline: “#BreakUpBigTech: Elizabeth Warren says Facebook just proved her point.” And CNN ran with, “Elizabeth Warren’s mission to break up Facebook gets help — from Facebook.” And NBC added, “Elizabeth Warren’s break-up plan for Amazon, Facebook could be the dawn of a new era of antitrust reform.” 

Of course, not everyone in the MSM was happy. For instance, Megan McArdle, a columnist for The Washington Post — you know, the publication owned by Jeff “Blofeld” Bezos — was moved to snipe: 

Warren’s position is of a piece with her earlier focus on banks: Big is bad. It’s also consistent in that it’s a Washington Issue that doesn’t address any particularly pressing problem, except maybe an inchoate unhappiness with the alienating scale of the modern economy.

Without a doubt, there are plenty of issues — political, legal, economic, and technical — to be hashed through on Big Tech, and so for better or worse, we’re a long way from anything happening to Facebook and the rest.  

Yet also without a doubt, the tech tide is turning as top elected Republicans are joining the debate. One such is Sen. Josh Hawley, who this month slammed the federal government’s past response to tech privacy abuses as “toothless.”   

Indeed, Hawley is hardly late to this issue; a decade ago, he wrote an admiring book about Theodore Roosevelt, and in 2017, as Missouri’s attorney general, he launched an investigation of Google.  

Sen. Ted Cruz retweeted Warren: 

First time I’ve ever retweeted @ewarren But she’s right—Big Tech has way too much power to silence Free Speech. They shouldn’t be censoring Warren, or anybody else. A serious threat to our democracy.

As Cruz suggests, censorship is a threat to democracy, not just to Republicans.  

Still, everyone on the right should think hard about the related issues that Warren raised, concerning utility status and the common carrier’s duty to all customers. As Virgil has written, this legal mandate of fairness could prove to be much more important to the protection of free speech and political fairness than any corporate breakup; after all, little Facebooks can censor just as easily as one big Facebook. 

And then, to top things off, at least for the moment, on March 13 came the news that Facebook, along with other tech companies, is under criminal investigation by the Justice Department for dubious data deals.

So we have to give Warren credit: She took the lead on a major national issue, and she’s being vindicated. She’s not the political frontrunner among the Democrats, but it could be argued that — former Harvard Law professor that she is — she’s the intellectual frontrunner. And since politics is, ultimately a battle of ideas, that means something.

As for a general election, if she were ever to get that far, well, that could be a different story. We’ll have to see how the American people — to say nothing of Republicans — will react to her support for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and maybe even reparations for slavery. And did Virgil mention that on everything else, too, she’s a lefty? In fact, according to Americans for Democratic Action, she scores a perfect 100 percent liberal rating. 

Still, for the time being, Warren is on a roll. Yes, she might have gotten lucky when Facebook got caught trying to silence her. And yet, as Napoleon said, “Luck is the residue of design.” Or, to put it more simply: You make your own luck.

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