How Big Tech is crushing our free speech

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Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican who represents Colorado’s 4th Congressional District, says we have given too much power to tech companies, who are limiting the exchange of free ideas. In an excerpt from his new book, “Crushed: Big Tech’s War on Free Speech,” he explains how Silicon Valley battles the First Amendment.

When it comes to turning a dream into reality, the cornerstone of American growth and prosperity is the First Amendment. Our founders believed freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly and the right to petition for change were paramount. These rights provide a secure, positive foundation for the American dream to thrive.

That American dream is great, it’s exceptional, but unfortunately, it’s in deep peril. It’s under direct attack by Big Tech.

Through market share, technology and policy, Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon have acquired control over the essential infrastructure of America’s commerce and communications. They are monopolies. Their concentrated power and foundational technologies, along with their little brother Twitter, make them the gatekeepers to the marketplace of ideas. They create the rules on what society sees: what information is added to a news feed, what apps are sold on their phones, what products are listed in their search results.

Jack Dorsey
Jack Dorsey said Twitter silencing The Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story was a “mistake.”
via REUTERS

I believe all Americans value the free flow of information and the principles of individual liberty more than they value same-day shipping. I believe that while many Americans love social media and search engines’ convenience, the majority would be horrified by the thought of Facebook, Google or Twitter owners deciding what subjects are permissible to discuss — or which news articles are OK to share and which are banned. I believe citizens have faith in a system that gives ownership to the inventors of new ideas and businesses and doesn’t let big businesses like Amazon just steal ideas or crush upstarts with impunity.

In other words, Big Tech’s power and business models result in the selective dissemination of information and infringe on the free flow of ideas. The fact these companies have consolidated this vast amount of power should concern all citizens. But we know these companies have exerted that power — both to benefit themselves economically and to suppress their ideological opponents. No one — conservative or liberal — should be comfortable with a few Silicon Valley oligarchs having a monopoly over the marketplace of ideas and, with it, democracy itself.

During the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, Facebook and Twitter actively prevented potentially damaging New York Post reports about Joe Biden’s son Hunter from reaching the public. Reacting to news about the contents of Hunter Biden’s discarded laptop, including emails showing he introduced his father to a Ukrainian energy executive (which the elder Biden had denied), Facebook representative Andy Stone said, “We are reducing [The Post’s] distribution on our platform.” Twitter was even more censorious: It blocked users from posting links to The Post’s story and shut down the paper’s Twitter account for two weeks.

Interestingly, a year later — after the election was over — Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admitted the so-called hacking offense was nonexistent and silencing The Post was a “mistake.” This was a clear case of Big Tech suppressing information that might have changed the outcome of the 2020 election.

Google’s search engine and its proprietary algorithmic relevance logic is, by definition, intrinsically exclusionary. Some results appear prominently at the top of the page, others are buried far below. While the powers that be at Google insist there is no political bias in its search engine, one 2018 report found that a news search on the term “Trump” returned an overwhelming number of articles from left of-center outlets. The first page included two links to CNN, CBS, The Atlantic, CNBC, The New Yorker and Politico. There were no right-leaning sites listed.

Hunter Biden
A trove of photos and emails were uncovered from Hunter Biden’s infamous laptop.

Big Tech increasingly uses its monopoly to suppress opinions, frequently targeting conservative politicians. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has found himself locked out of his Facebook page for “repeatedly going against our community standards,” suspended from Twitter for questioning the effectiveness of masks, and had videos removed from YouTube, which is owned by Google.

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) was suspended for two weeks after mocking Time magazine for giving the Woman of the Year award to a biological male. Google’s ad monopoly — its ownership of the system by which publishers list available ad space and advertisers bid on those placements — looms as its most damaging weapon in the war of ideas. Digital advertising is now the dominant paid-marketing tool. While TV advertising is arguably still the most powerful medium — witness the make-or-break sums spent on Super Bowl ads — advertisers shelled out $189 billion on digital advertising in 2021. That dwarfs the $49.1 billion spent on TV ads and $26 billion in print ads.

If ads are a form of speech and Google’s financial future is focused on controlling the digital-ad market, Google aims to be the gatekeeper of the most potent influencing tool in contemporary society — ads, which artificially affect the marketplace of ideas. Does Google get to decide, for example, which candidates are making “unreliable claims” and pull their campaign ads off the web?

Some of the left’s “thought leaders” advocate a regulatory scheme empowering a government agency to censor speech on the Internet. The better approach is for Congress to do its job and pass laws that promote competition, giving the free market a chance to flourish. We need to make sure monopolies do not weaponize their market dominance to stifle innovation and competition.

Allowing such predatory behavior may harm our society, reducing consumer choices and raising prices.

These monopolies already regulate what is said and what is seen, read and digested without any input from the American people. They determine what is sold and promoted on their platforms. Their algorithms determine what we see and what we don’t see because they place relevance values on content. If an article, book, video or photograph is given a low relevance rank, you may never learn of its existence. That kind of control can be leveraged to curry favor with or actively harm a person, politician or party.

President Trump
Buck shared that some Google results when searching “Trump” primarily unveiled links from left-leaning news sources.
Andrew Harnik/AP

Americans remember from their history lessons that late-19th- and early-20th-century monopolists controlled energy, finance, steel and commercial transportation. The difference between those monopolies and Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple is the new corporations own the platforms that control communication. They control the operating systems of our phones and computers. They control the algorithms that analyze and rank search results, thereby managing who sees what content. They own and parse their users’ personal data. They control where ads are placed, who gets to place them and for how much. This means Big Tech monopolies threaten the core of our political system. They have the power to control the information available to the public and shape it to benefit their own commercial interests and political views.

When control over information in a democracy rests in the hands of only a few individuals, the results of an election can be manipulated by those individuals. With their massive financial resources and command of critical digital media, Big Tech companies are positioned to dominate and distort not only financial and transactional marketplaces but, most important, the marketplace of ideas.

This threat to free speech is a risk America can’t afford.

Adapted with permission from “Crushed: Big Tech’s War on Free Speech,” by Ken Buck. Out now from Humanix Books.

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