Presidential candidate Kristi Noem blurb-bashes Big Tech to please her base. But is she willing to bash her conservative principles and support the bipartisan legislation proposed by members of Congress to check the power of corporate Internet giants with robust government intervention in their insufficiently regulated marketplace?
Republicans like Noem complain a lot about alleged censorship of their conservative views online. But most of those complaints are legislative and litigative dead ends, since the government can’t compel any private business to provide a platform for anybody’s messages, especially not messages threatening the integrity of democratic government.
Noem’s “conservative convictions” somehow don’t prevent her from advocating government overreach on First Amendment issues, so one would think her “conservative convictions” wouldn’t hinder her from advocating more reasonable, precedented, and proper government action against anti-competitive business practices. That’s the focus of the four bills introduced yesterday in Congress and a fifth already through the Senate:
One measure bans platforms from owning subsidiaries that operate on their platform if those subsidiaries compete with other businesses – potentially forcing the Big Tech firms to sell assets.
…A second measure would make it illegal in most cases for a platform to give preference to its own products on its platform with a hefty fine of 30% of the U.S. revenue of the affected business if they violate the measure.
The third bill would require a platform to refrain from any merger unless it can show the acquired company does not compete with any product or service the platform is in.
A fourth would require platforms to allow users to transfer their data elsewhere if they desire, including to a competing business.
In addition to those four, a fifth bill would raise what the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission charge to assess the biggest companies to ensure their mergers are legal and increase the budgets of the agencies. A companion to this has already passed the Senate [Diane Bartz, “Breaking up Big Tech in Focus as New U.S. Antitrust Bills Introduced,” Reuters, 2021.06.11].
Arguably, anti-trust legislation is rooted in conservative principles: the best economic results accrue from the free market, from the aggregation of billions of free choices between competing sellers and buyers. The government should not interfere in those choices, but neither should companies that grow so rich and powerful that they can stifle free choices by quashing competition. Taking an absolute position against government action opens the door for corporations to abuse their wealth and power and hinder the free market we thought we were saving.
In the United States, this has been compounded by efforts dating back to the Reagan years to weaken antitrust legislation, creating the laissez faire environment that the big tech companies have been able to exploit particularly well [Enrique Dans, “Congress Rolls Out Some Tough Regulatory Proposals for Big Tech,” Forbes, 2021.06.12].
To prevent the rich and powerful from rigging the free market, government can’t sit on the sidelines. We have to temper our conservative principles and advocate government’s entrance into the marketplace to level the playing field. Since that entrance is required only when one player becomes too big, the intervening government must necessarily be bigger, a Leviathan referee who can tell even the biggest player to cool it or, if the big galoot won’t heel, chew up that Goliath and spit out little Davids who can play nicely and fairly with others.
The bills also ask Congress to boost the enforcement powers of antitrust regulators, such as the Federal Trade Commission.
“They [Big Tech companies] are in a unique position to pick winners and losers, destroy small businesses, raise prices on consumers and put folks out of work,” the House Judiciary’s Antitrust Subcommittee chairman David Cicilline said, introducing the measures on Friday.
The goal, he said, is to “level the playing field” and ensure that powerful tech companies follow the same rules as other businesses [“US Lawmakers Unveil 5 Bills Targeting Big Tech,” Deutsche Welle, 2021.06.12].
The free market is a game with rules. Rules require enforcement and enforcers.
There’s the challenge for Noem and other conservatives who profess to oppose Big Tech. To take effective action against the excesses of corporate Internet giants, they must acknowledge and execute the proper role of necessarily big government in regulating business for the good of the community. Such pragmatism is too complicated and conciliatory for a red-meat campaign letter, but it’s how we make a free market economy really work.
One of Joe Biden’s campaign pledges was to regulate big tech, and the president has incorporated into academics and activists in favor of it into his team; but the idea has also found support among Republicans, part of a global regulatory trend that includes not only to the European Union, which has led the way in recent years, but also China. If we combine this trend with the recent G7 agreement that will try to put a stop to the aggressive tax optimization processes that these companies, as well as many other multinationals in other industries, have benefited from, the outlook for these new empires could be distinctly bumpy.
And frankly, it’s quite possible that this is going to be a very good thing, both for users and for competition and innovation [Dans, 2021.06.12].
Related Reading: Vox discusses all five bills in detail here. Sponsors are lumping the bills together in a package given the nicely conservative title, “A Stronger Online Economy: Opportunity, Innovation, and Choice.”