Missouri Senator Josh Hawley’s book The Tyranny of Big Tech is a diatribe against large tech platforms like Facebook and Google. It’s a remarkably radical, even quasi-Marxist critique for a Republican — one that proposes a series of regulations that would endear him to the most liberal of Democrats. I have problem with both Hawley’s historical context for tech regulation and some of his proposed remedies, but his book is a worthwhile addition to the serious analysis of the problems with today’s dominant technology platforms.
Before you read further, here’s a little context on my review of this book. As a media analyst and the coauthor of a bestselling business book on social media, I pay close attention to what’s going on with big platforms like Facebook and Google. I’ve also called repeatedly for changes in the current toothless regulatory regime for such companies. So far as I know, Senator Hawley is the first sitting member of Congress to author a book specifically about tech regulation.
Hawley himself is a prominent figure in the Republican resistance and one of the first members of Congress to question the certification of Joe Biden’s election to the presidency. Given my own political position, I’d never vote for Josh Hawley.
But I believe in listening to people who disagree with me politically, especially on topics like tech regulation. And this book has already been the topic of posts in this space, when Simon & Schuster cancelled its publication and Hawley’s contract. Regnery Publishing, a conservative imprint, picked up the book and published it in May.
Given all the baggage, I decided to attempt to read the book with an open mind. In my view, The Tyranny of Big Tech is a balanced and thoughtful analysis of the challenges that hugely powerful large tech companies create for our nation and what we ought to do about them.
Historical context: republicanism vs. corporate liberalism
Half of this book is the historical frame that Hawley puts forth as context. In that frame there is a clear rivalry between two world views. The founding fathers, according to Hawley, elevated the common working man and insisted that out of his wisdom would arise the strength of the nation. In Hawley’s book, this concept is called “republicanism” (small R) and Hawley clearly wishes you to associate it with today’s Republican Party.
Counterposed against this is the concept of “corporate liberalism.” (I’m curious of how many readers of this space have ever heard this term before, or could define it.) Corporate liberalism elevates the natural tendency of corporations to become larger and then dominate the economy of the nation, presumably for the benefit of the people. It also encompasses the idea that the personal choice of the individual is paramount, as compared to values like community and family. Since it includes the word “liberalism” (which is endlessly repeated in the book), you are meant to associate it with the Democratic Party.
These two forces come to the fore in the actions of Teddy Roosevelt (a Republican, of course) in launching 44 anti-trust suits against the titans of industry such Northern Securities, a railroad monopoly, and Standard Oil. When Roosevelt lost the tumultuous 1912 election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, things changed. Antitrust enforcement receded in favor of Wilson’s embrace of elites, including corporate leaders. According to Hawley “Wilson was the nation’s first prominent corporate liberal. And his victory in 1912 set the stage for all that was to follow, right up to the emergence of the globalizing, monopolizing Big Tech.”
Not being a historian, I can’t judge the accuracy of Hawley’s characterization of early Twentieth Century history. But as context, it’s questionable. Anyone who has lived through much of the last fifty years has seen how the Republican Party has been more friendly to corporations, while Democrats were stronger advocates for workers, such as in labor unions. It was not until the Tea Party movement and later the ascendance of Trumpism that this position partly reversed.
At present, it’s not clear which party is more pro-worker and which more pro-corporation. Democrats’ neoliberal embrace of business is certainly a shift, but Democrats in general have been more pro-regulation and for higher business taxes.
Hawley’s critique of Big Tech mostly treads over old ground
Putting aside quibbles over historical context, Part 2 of Hawley’s book describes issues with Big Tech — and I found most of it accurate, if a bit one-sided and repetitive. There’s a chapters on how addictive social media is (the “addiction business model,” as Hawley describes it), some commentary on the rise of vacuous influencers, descriptions of how smartphones undermine our emotional well being, a heartfelt analysis of the way Big Tech censors content, and a chapter on the globalist influence of multinational tech companies.
These critiques mostly rehash old, shallow, and well-worn whines about how bad tech is. They focus almost exclusively on Facebook and Google, with the occasional jab at Amazon. (Criticism of Apple is limited to its cozying up to China, Twitter endures a few jabs based on its censorship of Donald Trump, and Microsoft is pretty much unscathed).
But there are interesting formulations here tying Big Tech to all sorts of evils. Here are a few representative samples:
Only Big Tech is the high and mighty, the very definition. And Big Tech has gained powerful control over how we communicate in America — to a degree that would have horrified the founders. Social discourse is now centered on Big Tech’s platforms, and Big Tech has no interest in promoting deliberative debate or empowering the common man. Deliberative debate requires common sentiments and loyalties, a shared horizon of interests and purposes, all of which social media has undermined. For profit. And control. . . .
Remember when Mark Zuckerberg promised a future where Facebook’s all knowing algorithms would expose users “to a greater number of diverse perspectives”? That was merely liberal happy talk.
Google, it seemed, was willing to shove just about any kind of content toward users to keep their attention, no matter the dangers, no matter the harm. . . .
If corporate liberalism had dreamed of government by the experts, the woke capitalists of Big Tech were able to go them one better: now the biggest news publishers in the world could work in tandem with liberal corporatists in government, in the business world, and in other establishment institutions to advance the cause of “progress.” They would “educate” and “enlighten” the public, censor unhelpful opposing voices, and do it all out of sight, concealed behind algorithms and bland statements about “quality journalism.”
There was one part of this section that was not a boring retread. In Chapter 7, “The Censors,” Hawley relates what he heard directly from a former employee of Facebook known by the pseudonym “Mike Gilgan.” Gilgan relates how Facebook engineered a system of censorship intended to squash conservative voices and reduce their visibility. Furthermore, Hawley quotes Gilgan as alleging that Facebook’s censors coordinated their efforts with similar staffers at Twitter and Google’s YouTube. I’d like to hear more about this, it’s a story that deserves to be told in more detail.
Hawley proposes a regulatory regime worthy of a socialist
By the time I had gotten 90% of the way through the book, I was wondering how Hawley would actually propose to solve the problem of Big Tech (really, social media, based on what he spends time on). I was shocked to see a proposed rigid regulatory regime that the most liberal Democrat — say Elizabeth Warren — would be happy to embrace.
I’m a staunch proponent of regulating social media, as anyone who has read my Globe op-eds can testify. But I don’t want to kill it. Hawley does. He wants these global tech companies punished for what they did and crippled so they can never do it again. It’s a regime that would remake the Internet completely.
Here are the main tenets of Hawley’s proposed regulation with my analysis of how effective they might be.
- Prosecute Google for tying services together. Use anti-trust enforcement to challenge Google’s vertical consolidation of the online ad market and its forcing advertisers on some Google platforms to advertise on other platforms. I think Google’s dominance of the ad market has gone too far, so I’d support this.
- Prosecute Facebook for being deceptive about its own business practices. Mark Zuckerberg lies often and changes his mind. I don’t know if this is prosecutable.
- Break up Google (divest YouTube) and Facebook (divest Instagram and WhatsApp). That’s a page directly from Elizabeth Warren’s hymnal. I’m not against this, but I don’t think it addresses the biggest problems with Google and Facebook’s divisive algorithms.
- Create a Big Tech analog of Glass-Steagall financial regulation. Force tech companies to choose between being consumer facing platforms or producers of goods and services. I’m confused by this — it seems not very well baked. Is the point that a company that offers free content cannot also offer subscriber content? That’s crazy. Is it aimed at Amazon’s ownership of both AWS and its consumer portal? This seems like a broad regulatory power to regulate that one piece of co-ownership. What’s the underlying justification?
- Enable the Department of Justice to designate major tech firms as dominant and regulate their mergers. This is a good idea. Once a company becomes as dominant as Google or Facebook or Amazon, mergers are often anticompetitive. I’d like to see obstacles to that activity.
- Legislate that anti-trust be the purview of the Justice Department, with the FTC subsidiary to it. Hawley believes that turf wars between the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have hamstrung anti-trust enforcement. I don’t know enough about the workings of regulators to determine if this would do good or harm.
- End Section 230 liability protection for any company that engages in “behavioral advertising.” Ending Section 230 is a blunt instrument. If it were to end, the results would likely make Facebook, Google, and Twitter more powerful, because only such huge companies would be able to bear the cost of enforcement and moderation. And as this MSNBC article persuasively argues, ending the liability shield would force Facebook and YouTube to stringently regulate lies, which would shut down a lot of questionable conservative content. I’m a proponent of tying a bunch of changes to the maintenance of Section 230, rather than ending it completely.
- Create an opt-in Do Not Track program. It’s tempting to provide a mechanism by which consumers could opt out of behavioral tracking. Enforcing it would be a bear. And people would find that it makes their content a lot less suited to their desires.
- Raise the age for opening a social media account to 16. Sounds good. But the backlash from teenagers would be massive. Are we really going to tell 15-year-olds that they can’t join Instagram? Harsh.
- Set default limits for app usage, say, an hour a day. This is where I found myself wondering how Republican Josh Hawley had found himself deep in the embrace of the mommy state. Who are we to say what is healthy for America’s digital consumption? Is this freedom or socialism?
- Make Tech’s adherence to its own terms and conditions binding. Sounds like a good idea to me.
- Let individuals sue tech companies for acts of censorship. Exactly how would that work? Whose idea of “censorship” are we enforcing? Hawley’s proposal is just its own form of censorship. I’ve proposed a mechanism to restore balance to political speech on social platforms. The solution to unbalanced speech is more speech, not clumsy attempts to force platforms to carry content they feel is offensive.
How is this level of regulation even compatible with Josh Hawley’s position as a Republican? I thought Republicans were supposed to be for scrapping business regulation, not ramping it up.
Regardless of that political inconsistency, I think Hawley’s proposals are worth discussing. And I think he and Elizabeth Warren ought to have a good long talk about it. They agree on a lot of things when it comes to social media regulation. And if they agree, we may yet get to a regulatory regime that reins in the worst abuses of online platforms.