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Don’t Panic: Big Tech Is Not a Villain
By Tim W. Ferguson
Robby Soave is a boyish-looking 33 years old, but he is already establishing himself as a wise man in the techno-libertarian universe. As political warriors on the left and right attack Big Tech, largely as a proxy for fighting each other, Soave’s latest book, “Tech Panic: Why We Shouldn’t Fear Facebook and the Future,” dispenses this general advice: Chill.
A Reason magazine journalist with early free-speech cred, Soave addresses an ever-widening front in the culture wars. Not just ambitious politicians, but aggrieved parties of various sorts—from a pouting former president to mothers of teenage girls—are denouncing the social media giants. So are many of tech’s own employees, usually out of their highly caffeinated wokeness. In the commercial internet, Amazon has stirred old antitrust enthusiasms. The force that most of the critics want to use to check Big Tech is the federal government, and there Soave would draw the line.
His preferred methods of argument are historical context, detailed background of supposed online outrages such as Cambridge Analytica, and emphasis of the tradeoffs involved in trying to curb a sometimes-noxious accompaniment to our modern lives. Soave doesn’t uniformly give Big Tech a pass, but he wants to buy time for the marketplace to play out. And he prefers to think we all have free will—or parental supervision—and are not merely the coders’ lab rats.
Moral Panic About Disruptive Technologies
Disruptive innovations displease people and entities comfortable with the previous order. Traditional publishing is particularly threatened by the kinds of Big Tech discussed in this book. Soave recounts cases going back at least as far as the phonograph. New York Times writers have been notably cranky about change at multiple points throughout history. For example, one 1878 article complained, “Something ought to be done to Mr. Edison . . . with a hemp rope.” In a society that lacks much knowledge of or interest in history, the tendency to extrapolate ruin from novel trends is heightened. Yet wait, Soave says. Comic books, punk rock and video games did not kill us, and today’s free speech won’t either.
Those who are blinkered about Big Tech today are the partisans who want to punish or defang the social media platforms used by their foes. Surely realizing that his primary audience skews right, Soave spotlights congressional conservatives—Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is ground zero—who would invoke state power in foolish ways, such as legislating content regulation by the Federal Trade Commission. Their grievance is that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others have blocked or impeded material objectionable to the left. The industry’s preferred terms for such oversight are “moderating” or “fact-checking.” Yet for every such offense, Soave argues, the social technologies have enabled multiple contrarian voices to be heard, in a way the old mainstream media never would have.
To the left, meanwhile, Soave makes a case that the conspiracy “rabbit holes” and Russian bot manipulations so often linked to social media are a truly small price to pay in the pursuit of openness. As his sober voice speaks to the damning din, “A more rational, nuanced approach might lead a reasonable person to conclude that on the net, social media is not such a serious threat.”
Moderating Content and Breaking Up Big Tech
Both warring camps have trained their sights on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which absolves online platforms of liability for audience-sourced content. Those words or images that are contributed by consumers, not by paid staff or contractors to the sites, have often been the most inflammatory or damaging to civility, but they are vital to the “engagement” premium of the online business by stirring up reaction. (This feature is also behind the spread of countless clever memes that organically become a rage—#LetsGoBrandon!)
The origins of the now-troublesome Section 230 are benign and ironic. Co-authored by two men of different ideologies—Chris Cox and Ron Wyden—it was of immediate relief to an early web chat forum, Prodigy, that was moderating its user content while rivals were not. As Soave notes, this created an opening for libel lawyers to argue that Prodigy was a publisher and not merely a platform—and was thus legally responsible for the speech of its users—until Section 230 refined the distinction and clarified that oversight wasn’t akin to editing. Without it, the internet would not have become a near-universal forum. Take it away and “Silicon Valley” becomes the editor, silencing much of the public out of caution or bias.
Beyond the effort to subject content choices to legal scrutiny, some opponents on both the left and the right seek to “break up” Big Tech. Realizing that the economic imperatives of the network effect point toward agglomeration—the more people use your service, the more valuable it is to each user—they see government’s heavy hand as the only viable counterweight to protect competition and limit private power. Or, in the case of Donald Trump, you can substitute the “techlash” of pure spite.
There’s a long debate about such antitrust policies in the U.S. Soave gets a bit sidetracked on this, revisiting the Standard Oil case to share his own skepticism of the measures. But the extreme difficulty of unwinding what are now complex ecosystems in consumer-facing technology is something a breezy little volume like “Tech Panic” can only hint at. (As an aside, my peeve at the Threshold imprint of Simon & Schuster is that even short nonfiction like this needs an index.) Soave helpfully shows how backward many members of Congress are about the web, cloud or whatever—these people are the ones who would enact a restructuring?
But size matters for another reason. It is true that in the ever-fleeting tastes of the smartphone thumb-clicker, upstarts can displace mainstays (today it’s TikTok, yesteryear it was Myspace). But the best antidote to “monopolies” today may be battles between giants. Amazon has fearsome sway in retail sales and distribution, but it is also an information hoard with the potential to challenge Google/Alphabet in advertising and commercial search. (The once-dominant, and still uber-profitable, software maker Microsoft backed away from that challenge but can compete with Amazon in cloud services.) Facebook—er, Meta—has an international reach that could enable sustained new initiatives even as its original platform becomes the fading favorite of American grandparents. Then, of course, there’s whatever the Chinese Communist Party wants to unleash.
Is It Time To Panic?
So is there any legitimate basis for tech worry, if not panic? Soave, the level-headed libertarian, concedes a bit. He mostly smiles on sites “voluntarily” curbing disturbing material, including output from quarters of the so-called alt-right. At the same time, he dissects episodes of “canceling” by social-media mobs that wrongly subjected careless or provocative thought to reckless retribution by “doxxing” personal data and other invasions.
He devotes a chapter to how Facebook was used to promote genocide in Burma and to impose authoritarian dogma elsewhere, even as it has also been a useful hub for rebellious dissidents globally. (Its sister operation WhatsApp could have provided further pages of examples.) Soave is at a loss, apart from some filtering half-measures by the platforms, for how people—particularly women—can prevent pictures of themselves from being splashed online as revenge porn.
But Soave is not going to concede that online usage has spoiled a whole young generation. The litany of interpersonal ills attached to Big Tech—inattention and lack of socialization from extended screen time, depression and even suicide from envy of the lives of others—are overstated if not chronic conditions, more easily blamed on a device or medium than on factors IRL. If adolescent girls say Instagram (another Facebook property) makes them sad because they compare themselves to idealized images, well . . . school seems to make them even sadder. And the pandemic did no wonders for anyone. Soave observes that “the teens of today might simply be more willing to admit to survey collectors that they are mentally unwell . . . [reflecting] trauma as a status-enhancing calling card.”
However, neither Soave’s 244 hardcover pages nor the continuing tech-swagger from the whole gang at Reason are going to head off the political ritual—“witch hunt,” in Soave’s favorite metaphor—from playing out in his hometown of Washington. There’s too much opportunity for gain, and think of the mushrooming lobbying dollars to be mustered. Certainly the right will face zealous moderation by unfriendly eyes, even if the companies that Mark Zuckerberg and others created have given them ever more channels of opportunity. (As for Trump’s GOP, Zuckerberg’s precision influence on the 2020 election occurred offline, in the form of his personal $350 million funding of pro-Democrat turnout operations.) For established media, the leak pipeline of Big Tech’s dirty secrets—of late, the celebrated whistleblower and her consortium of scribbling suitors behind the “Facebook Papers”—may run thin but hardly ever dry.
Business-wise, the rivalrous ardor about tech’s abuses may die down as there’s a gradual—or even swift—media meld. It likely won’t come from co-ownership (antitrust!), but there will be a commonality of enterprise: Everybody will be publishing (or moderating), selling stuff, taking wagers, hosting gamers, streaming video, sharing insipid thoughts and galleries, trying to be funny without offense (ha!). But government, which is rarely creative in content and has as its logistics arm the U.S. Postal Service, cannot join this party (at least so far in the Land of the Free), so it will seek to poke and prod, maybe to lance. We who largely benefit from dynamic change and exchange will welcome as a shield the precocious perspective of thinkers like Robby Soave.