In a meeting of a House antitrust subcomittee last week, members took turns lamenting the market supremacy of Big Tech — and making pledges to curtail it. Bipartisan consensus on this is refreshing, and it is in fact the charge of government to ensure free markets by breaking up monopolies.
Americans, however, should not put their trust in princes. While these hearings make for good campaign ads, Congress has a bad track record of helping Americans, and American innovators can never forget this.
The hard reality is Congress doesn’t, at least right now, have the time, the resources, or the willpower to make even the tiniest dent in Big Tech’s titanium armor. Frankly, it doesn’t even currently possess the practical understanding of the internet to formulate the questions that need to be posed to the tyrants of Silicon Valley. It’s only a matter of time before some clueless representative asks how much weight “the cloud” can hold before it falls back to earth.
At the end of the day, we can never forget Big Tech isn’t the internet, even though they put billions into making us, and our elected officials, think they are. Our American internet is the framework of datacenters, ISPs, hosting companies, and the applications built on top of it — and there are free-market solutions happening today to take it back and build alternatives outside of Big Tech’s reach.
This all means Americans can’t only wait around for legislative “fixes.” So it’s up to us, as individuals and American citizens, to do what we’ve always done when faced with an existential threat to our way of life: band together, build, and fight.
Last year marked ignoble heights in the chronicles of monopoly power. The only genuine competition within Big Tech involved which incalculably powerful corporation could most effectively mute conservative voices.
Google continued its purge of conservative outlets. Apple and Amazon – along with Google – teamed up to shutter Parler. Meanwhile, Twitter booted the president of the United States of America. Lo and behold, it continues to provide a soapbox to Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, whose regime is a state sponsor of terror.
If you want to know who really runs our country, see who has the final say. It’s not us, the citizens. It’s not elected officials, either. When the leader of the free world is excommunicated from essentially all the platforms that are indispensable to public communication in the 21st century — and is offered no recourse — that’s a sure sign certain private players hold too much power.
We must keep in mind this stunning fact: Big Tech spent more money lobbying the last Congress than any other industry did. This power goes beyond a direct and traditional one, which may even be more frightening. Their ability to control distribution through shadow algorithms that simply remove our ability to participate in their platform without any accountability or knowledge of how it changed is downright dangerous.
Why, for instance, does Rep. Devin Nunes have fewer than 10,000 followers on YouTube, yet on its competitor website Rumble, his reach is approaching 700,000 subscribers? Are we to believe his message and audience has no interest on one of the largest sites on the internet?
Republicans and Democrats continue to put on a nice show, forming an ostensibly united front in committee hearings. Most of their castigations of Big Tech are nothing more than pot shots — vocalizations absent intentionality. Scratch the surface, and you’ll see that the two sides of the aisle don’t even agree upon what constitutes “good” or “bad” behavior.
Some individuals can’t even agree with themselves. For example, when Facebook blocked all Australian users from viewing or sharing news links, an apparently-enraged Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, the chairman of the subcommittee, declared, “Facebook is not compatible with democracy.” But when President Trump, the political leader of Cicilline’s own country, was deplatformed by Twitter, he said with a shrug, “If you can’t be trusted with a Twitter account, you shouldn’t be trusted with nuclear codes.”
The issue here is that conservatives and leftists increasingly interpret the First Amendment in fundamentally different ways. Those on the right err on the side of freedom of expression, while those on the left are convinced that freedom of expression must be curtailed to limit “hate speech”—that concept which, because of its subjectivity and arbitrary application, actively seeks to erase an immutable right. This is why, when conservatives are censored by Big Tech, the right is justifiably outraged, but the left exasperatingly asks the Silicon Valley Police Patrol why it took them so darn long to respond to the Five Alarm Toxic Discourse Fire.
What is to be done? To Americans who have expressed concern, Big Tech has suggested, without irony, that they start competitors. “You’re tired of Twitter? Build your own Twitter.” Of course, Parler attempted that. The moment that would-be-alternative started picking up steam, Apple, Google, and Amazon snuffed it out. (And Cicilline was MIA.)
There is something to building, though. Conservatives guffaw when elites tell Americans in Rustbelt towns whose jobs have been shipped overseas to “learn to code.” Yet we can’t afford to repeat our mistake of 30 years ago when we surrendered culture to the left.
Moreover, we can’t rely, as we too often have in the past, on the courts. Also, the “regulators” across the federal government are either co-opted or currently underequipped to perform their task. At least some people on our side, even just a vanguard, must step into the breach and code. Conservatives cannot cede the digital realm, which impacts virtually every single aspect of our daily existence, to our adversaries.
To be sure, the solution isn’t building an alternative to Google or to a social media platform. It’s much more revolutionary than that. It’s much more American, too. It’s building from scratch to battle back against overwhelming odds. Our task is to foster the very infrastructure upon which a new search engine or a new social media platform could be entirely safe from deplatforming.
That starts with building our own backbone of the internet: data centers, servers, and cloud hosting services. In other words, the only way remaining to truly protect freedom of expression and, in turn, our democracy, is by building free and open internet whose elements, from top to bottom, are immune to external forces.
Congress can huff and puff about Big Tech. But in the meantime, conservatives – and all others who prize American exceptionalism – should invest in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, ingenuity, and good-old-fashioned gutsiness.
Greg Steube is the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 17th congressional district and a member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. Martín Avila is CEO at RightForge, a full-service technology infrastructure company.
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