In the bad old days, the major newspapers and networks served as gatekeepers, controlling the flow of information and excluding conservative ideas and voices.
The Internet and its large search and social platforms have broken the stranglehold of elite opinion and made it possible for conservatives to organize and distribute facts and information with a speed and scale that was previously impossible, creating pathways that completely bypass the legacy media, which has reacted by becoming even more monolithically left-wing.
As a result, the tech giants – including especially Facebook and Google – have come under intense pressure from the left to impose large-scale suppression of conservative views through censoring, banning, shadow-banning, and sometimes invasive “fact-checking” on the theory that the genie of conservative organizing at scale can be put back in the bottle.
Conservatives have reacted by adopting a wartime footing, many of them partially or wholly jettisoning free-market doctrine based on the same rationalization that President George W. Bush adopted when he embraced the TARP bailout and announced he had chucked his free-market principles: as necessitated by crisis.
Some have suggested an indirect regulatory attack may be possible without sacrificing principle, via scaling back the scope of liability protection the technology companies or "interactive computer services" enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Such conditional regulation could generate the same economic and political inequities, however, as more direct approaches. Moreover, the legitimate debates about the scope of Section 230 and parallel provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act should be considered on their merits, not bootstrapped as a lever for attempting to induce structural or behavioral changes.
Nonetheless, the emergence of this policy debate must be understood in the context of widespread alarm among conservative base voters and activists over apparent left-wing bias in the Internet and social media sector.
We contend that rapprochement is overwhelmingly in the interests of both conservatives and the dominant American technology companies, and can be achieved if these companies can take steps to reassure consumers that they are friendly to users across the political spectrum and in turn conservatives oppose policy changes that enhance the power and influence of government to break them up or regulate them.
The digital market leaders should also show good faith by ceasing their long-running advocacy of what amounts to price controls on the physical infrastructure companies – cables and telcos – and agree to consistent, market-based rules of the road for all.
It is conservatives who have the most to lose if government power over the Internet is expanded, because that power is likely to be used most aggressively by future politicians and career civil servants with their own left wing biases and strong priors to reestablish the gatekeeping function of elite opinion – consistent with their ideology – than by conservatives who would deploy it only reluctantly and in conflict with their own core beliefs.
Indeed the true, natural, allies for the leading digital companies are on the liberty-minded right, because any understanding or accommodation reached with the left would be of necessity only prudential and not ideological. The impulse to tear down the country's most successful companies, precisely because they are successful, is endemic to the soaring “class warfare” ideology that has infused the Democratic Party.
The antitrust attacks on America's most successful companies, in particular, are the latest in a long tradition of attacking and penalizing success – in the face of falling prices and ever-increasing consumer benefit. Indeed that is the true story of antitrust actions dating back to enactment of the Sherman Act, from the dissolution of the Northern Securities and Standard Oil to more recent actions against IBM, AT&T, and Microsoft.
The U.S. economy and American society are the beneficiaries of a vibrant Internet sector that is free of overbearing government interference. The market leaders are far from perfect and many complaints from the right are legitimate. But we need to resolve these differences without putting more power over free speech and the decisions of consumers into the hands of the federal government.