Friday, 22 September 2017

The Corner

Jeremy Carl makes a strong case for imposing viewpoint neutrality on tech firms that function as de facto public utilities. To prevent censorship at the whim of a few large firms, Carl would ban Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. from rejecting or discriminating against users for their political views. I endorse the proposal for all the reasons he laid out. But it’s interesting to contrast the public versus private incentives for each party involved. Specifically, one might assume that Republicans in Congress would be eager to ensure that conservative speech is not censored, while Silicon Valley leaders would oppose any such regulation. I suspect the opposite is true.

Silicon Valley leaders are currently falling over themselves to see who can most thoroughly blacklist alt-right groups. They justify the censorship with the principle that they will not be parties to “hate.” In my experience, however, large organizations worry only about their bottom lines. They rarely stand up for any greater principle if it gets in the way of conducting business as usual. When Silicon Valley censors, it is less principle than it is virtue signaling – defensive virtual signaling, to be more precise. Tech firms fear shaming and controversy ginned up by “social justice warriors,” so they compete over who can censor the most. It’s an arms race to make their businesses controversy-proof.

Tech firms would obviously prefer not to worry about signaling all the time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some way to end the need for signaling without losing virtue points to rival firms? That’s exactly what regulation would do. If Congress imposes viewpoint neutrality on Silicon Valley, its businesses could simply dismiss complaints from Social Justice Warriors: “Sorry, we would love to refuse service to these right-wingers whom you hate, but we can’t. We’re just following the law like everyone else.” Their public posturing notwithstanding, Silicon Valley leaders must find this outcome appealing.

Now think about Congress. Politicians dislike distractions just as businesses do, and the alt-right has become a major distraction for Republican politicians. Every time the alt-right pops up somewhere, the media ask Republicans questions about it, link Republicans to it, tell Republicans to condemn it more forcefully, and so on. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the alt-right could just go away? That might happen – in large part, at least – if tech firms are allowed to block the alt-right’s access to major forms of commerce and communication. For the Republican party, the most immediate effect of passing a neutrality regulation would be to invigorate an alt-right movement that has become a big thorn in its side. How many Republicans are going to be excited about doing that?

I agree with Jeremy Carl that Silicon Valley’s censorship of “hate” will morph into censorship of mainstream conservatism. In fact, as Mark Krikorian noted yesterday, it already has! Nevertheless, Republican politicians may be too worried about the next election to think about the long term. The result may be that a tech-neutrality bill struggles in Congress for different reasons than most people assume.

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