The internet is undoubtedly the most important invention of the last several decades. And no country has been better at commercializing the internet than America. Apple is unlikely to be the last trillion-dollar U.S. tech company.
It sure would be a shame to mess all that up over a loopy provocateur like Alex Jones.
But here we are. The social-media banning of the conspiracy-mongering, hate-spewing performance artist could push Republicans to ruin the internet.
Even before Apple, YouTube, Facebook, and Spotify purged the noxious content produced by Jones and his Infowars website, Republican lawmakers and pundits were attacking social media and internet companies for bias against conservatives. Among the supposedly persuasive bits of evidence: unfounded claims that Facebook was censoring pro-Trump video bloggers Diamond and Silk, and an errant Google search result that linked the California GOP with "Nazism." Then there's the political liberalism — or at least financial support of Democrats — of many tech CEOs.
Sen. Ted Cruz, like many of his fellow Republicans, claims to have connected the dots. As he said on a Breitbart podcast: "These tech companies are hard left. … They are suppressing the views of conservatives. They are blocking conservatives. ... That is invidious. It is invisible, and it is profoundly dangerous."
Of course, it was skillful use of social media that helped Donald Trump win the presidency, and right-leaning pages apparently have a bigger presence on Facebook than left-leaning ones. But the reality that too many GOP politicians care most about is getting their voters ginned up for the November midterm elections. Perhaps nudging along the perception that conservatives are being persecuted by Silicon Valley will do the trick. As one Republican campaign strategist told Politico, "It's something Trump has talked about repeatedly, it's a base motivator, you're not going to find conservatives who don't believe there's bias."
The banning of Jones, though perfectly justified, will make it even easier for Republicans to make a tribalist political case against Big Tech. More concerning, however, is if paranoid politics turns into policy. Cruz and some other Republicans have mused about taking away websites' immunity from liability for what their users post, as stated in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Here's the actual language: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." Many policy experts across the political spectrum have credited this legal shield with playing a major role in the internet's explosive innovation and continuing growth over the past two decades. Internet legal scholar David Post has argued that without the provision, it is hard to see how Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Instagram, or Amazon would exist today.
But some on the right see this provision as giving firms an unaccountable right to censor content of which they disapprove. Well, yeah, that's true in a way — if you ignore that these firms are accountable to their users. And that's kind of the point, too. One reason Section 230 was included was to encourage tech firms to remove or restrict access to "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable" material without being held legally liable. Given the internet's spectacular success, it would be hard to argue that Section 230 was a bad idea. Not that it should never be changed or altered in any way, of course. Congress recently narrowed the rule to fight sex trafficking, which all else being equal seem unobjectionable.
Yet the fear among tech activists is this small loophole will widen until platforms are liable for all sorts of content hosted on their platforms. And given what some GOP officials are saying, the concern hardly seems unfounded.
Established tech titans might well survive a new world of enhanced legal liability, but good luck to their unborn future competitors who won't have massive resources at their disposal. While Republicans are kvetching about the dominance of big tech companies — with some adopting the left's call to break up the most dominant — they may unwittingly be furthering it. This seems to be just what is unintendedly happening with Europe's new data protection regulatory regime.
So rather than undertake risky, poorly thought through regulations that could undermine the internet and the vibrant business ecosystem built around it, here's another option for the right: Quit whining and build. If it really thinks social media is oppressively hostile to Trumpian America, then there must be a huge market opportunity for Red America-friendly competitors. Use that can-do American spirit and build them. Just make sure your representatives in Washington aren't making it harder to do so.