President Biden rang in the new year with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Republicans and Democrats, Unite Against Big Tech Abuses.” In it, the President spells out the supposed abuses of the tech industry and the consequences they have for society. He then outlines a political agenda to regulate the American tech industry and rightly recognizing the limits of executive power in this area. He concludes calling for bipartisan movement in Congress to achieve that vision. However, the President’s vision is immensely short-sighted and would do far more harm than good.
Biden opens his piece by acknowledging, “The American tech industry is the most innovative in the world.” He commends those who have made that statement true. However, he immediately follows this fleeting nod with, “But like many Americans, I’m concerned.” Biden can compliment the achievements of the tech industry all he likes, but if it is followed by a political agenda to limit further innovation, the words ring hollow. As political commentator and author Michael Malice would say, “Anything preceding the word ‘but’ in a political claim can be ignored.”
The first concrete “abuse” identified by Biden is that “Big Tech companies collect huge amounts of data on the things we buy, on the websites we visit, [and] on the places we go.” Biden then goes on to claim that these companies use this data to purposely direct users towards extreme, polarizing content “to keep them logged on and clicking.”
This is no more an “abuse” by tech companies than is any brick-and-mortar company conducting basic market research. Any business researches the market to try to find which products have the most demand and therefore determine how to market their own inventory to maximize success. Data collection by Big Tech companies is merely a modern iteration of that same tried-and-true business practice. Simply because tech companies are using more sophisticated means to do so does not make it any more malicious.
In the same way any store would amplify its best-selling products, so too would a social media company amplify its high performing content or – in this case – content it determines a user would be more interested than generic non-targeted ads. Biden claims this causes extremism and polarization. Unfortunately, the demand for extremism and polarization already exists. This divide was not created by Big Tech, but, by many of the bipartisan lawmakers to whom Biden directed this op-ed to.
Biden then goes on to claim that “tech companies have elbowed mom-and-pop businesses out of their platforms, disadvantaged them, or charged them outlandish prices, making it harder for them to compete and grow.”
Unfortunately, Biden provides neither examples nor statistics to back up these claims about Big Tech’s relationship with small businesses. The likely reason for this is because of how many small businesses owe their existence to big tech firms. Big Tech allows these small businesses to reach more customers than ever before. And, yes, sometimes they charge for that service. If it is “outlandish,” the small business can walk away. However, if many small businesses accept or determine they cannot grow without it, then the price would fit the demand for the service and is anything but outlandish. Rather, this is the free market at work.
Biden then outlines three affirmative policy solutions he believes will fix the current woes. First, he suggests “clear limits on how companies can collect, use, and share highly personal data.” His second suggestion calls for Congress to “fundamentally reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.” Lastly, Biden vaguely suggests adding “more competition back to the tech sector.”
While data privacy is a good place to start, Biden’s proposals are far too sweeping and cater to the lowest common denominator. Some online browsers may take an absolutist approach and desire none of their data to be collected. Others may desire more data collection to better meet their online needs. Biden caters only to the former group proposing entire categories of data that should never be collected and a sweeping ban on data collection on children – without suggesting how a tech company is to determine how old an internet user is at any given time or the implausibility of doing so.
Biden’s proposal to reform Section 230 would be a disaster for online discourse. If Biden is looking for bipartisan successes as it relates to tech, he need look no further than Section 230. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-O.R.), one of the original authors of this law when he was a member of the House, describes it as a “sword and a shield” for internet speech, giving tech companies a shield from frivolous litigation to safeguard speech rights, but a sword to be able to remove harmful posts as they see fit. Removing that would upset a very important balance online.
Lastly, President Biden’s call for a “level playing field” online lack any specifics. However, he does complain, “When tech platforms get big enough, many find ways to promote their own products while… disadvantaging competitors.” This, however, is how all business works. If President Biden is suggesting that companies stop promoting their own products while trying to stop consumers from buying from their competitors, that would fundamentally alter basic economics as we know it. Safeway and CVS beware if companies aren’t allowed to promote and sell their own products.
While the ecosystem online is far from perfect, the political urge to “just do anything” about it could cause far more issues. While connectivity is vital in American life, there are a litany of options with a variety of different considerations. Americans should be able to choose a search engine that meets their data collection desires, a social media site that meets their speech and ad preferences, and patronize companies with the right products and prices for them. The free market is the solution, not the problem.