Unless the aggregated the power that was described in the first blog of this series, Free Speech and Big Tech – The Problem, is not checked and balanced, the likely consequence will be the end to free societies. Recognizing and understanding why that is the case is essential to finding a cure for the problem that does not do as much harm as the disease will be hard. Let’s sort this out by first pinpointing the problematic consequence.
Big Tech (1) controls the primary means humans use to communicate ideas (speech), something essential to a free society,[i] (2) can tweak its algorithms to promote negative comments and suppress positive comments about anyone and thereby demonize anyone while being blocking or overwhelming the victim’s attempt to defend herself, (3) can ban anyone from the primary communication platforms, and/or (4) can surveil everyone who uses those platforms. These are awesome powers.
Having the power to surveil is particularly important for Big Tech’s power because it enables Big Tech to discover things about people who use the primary means of communication that those people do not want to be made public. Obtaining compromising information about people gives Big Tech the power to blackmail. The threat that Big Tech can allow negative comments about a person to flow far and wide while stifling positive comments (defame people with the curated words of others) gives Big Tech a highly effective way to force people to shut up. Knowing how essential free speech was to a free society, ensuring that every citizen’s right to free speech would not be infringed was a first, and foremost goal of the U.S. founders. Unfortunately, the founders did not have the clairvoyance to see that an institution other than the government might amass enough power to infringe on free speech.
As subversive to a free society Big Tech’s power to infringe on citizen’s free speech rights is, exercising that power against citizens is not the worst consequence of Big Tech’s power. Big Tech power to surveil and blackmail politicians and bureaucrats is worse.
A fundamental and eternal bane of human existence is that while humans flourish more in societies that have rules established by effective rulers, unless those rulers are reasonably restrained, rulers become tyrannical. Societies that have achieved the most humans flourishing have a set of rules that limit the powers of rulers to become tyrannical by giving their citizens an ability to dethrone rulers who exceed the powers delegated to them. That approach to governance is fundamental to the most successful country in human history, America. Big Tech’s power, however, is changing America’s fundamental approach to governance.
As Dr. Robert Epstein testified to Congress in July 2019, “In 2016, Google’s search algorithm likely impacted undecided voters in a way that shifted at least 2.6 million votes to Hillary Clinton, whom I supported… In the weeks leading up to the 2018 election, bias in Google search results may have shifted upwards of 78.2 million votes, spread across many races to the candidates of one political party.”[ii] Politicians are supposedly accountable to the people because the people have the power to vote them out of office if they do not serve the interests of the people. That theory falls apart if there is a separate power that can destroy a politician’s chance of getting elected if she does not serve the political and economic objectives of that power. “One man, one vote” has little meaning when corporations can control who can be nominated.
As bad the high priests of Big Tech meddling in elections is, it is not the worst consequence.
If it is not already there, Big Tech will soon supplant the government as the predominate power that controls how society works. Once free speech is sufficiently stifled, tyranny will follow. This is because “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely… [and] as a person’s power increases, their moral sense diminishes.”[iii] However moral Big Tech may be today, which is debatable, history clearly demonstrates that morality is a minor factor in decision-making by tyrants, if it is a factor at all.[iv]
Whistleblowers, hidden camera videos, and purloined memos of Big Tech officials have revealed that Big Tech is actively exercising its powers to achieve its political and financial objectives.[v] Those practices would be less problematic if (1) humans had not so overwhelmingly gravitated to Big Tech’s modes of communication, (2) Big Tech had not used and would not continue to use the wealth generated by humans consuming its products to invest in product-improving R&D at rates that will outpace potential competitors, (3) all the corporate officers of the companies that run the primary modern modes of communication did not have the same political philosophies and objectives, then Big Tech’s power could be checked by competition from companies with officers that had political philosophies and objectives that challenged the political groupthink that has enthralled Big Tech executives. Because all of that happened, Big Tech is using its unchecked, unchallenged, monolithic power to impose their philosophy (religion, actually) on society, including its electoral processes. This collection of powers has grown constantly and continues to get stronger. In many respects its power to affect elections is greater than any politician, party, or deep state actor.
Perhaps more important than all of that, with its surveillance and speech control abilities, Big Tech has the power to blackmail most, if not all, politicians and bureaucrats to serve their financial and political purposes. A threat by Big Tech to demonize, embarrass, silence, subject to criminal inquiry, etc. against a politician would be highly credible, i.e., effective. In short, Big Tech has or soon will have the power to tell politicians and bureaucrats what laws or regulations they need to support and to lie to Congress and investigators with impunity (prosecutors dare not fall out of favor with Big Tech). The idea that a people can live in a society under a government of the people, by the people, and for the people may be a thing of the past if a way to check Big Tech’s power is not found and implemented.
As will be discussed in the next post, finding a way to address this threat to liberty that does not do more harm than good is a monumental challenge.
[iii] See “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton