December 14, 2017 is increasingly looking like a day that could go down in history for all the right reasons — namely, as the day when the tech industry’s stranglehold on Washington, D.C. policymakers was broken. That day, Ajit Pai’s FCC repealed the thoroughly unnecessary program known as net neutrality, a move that in itself counts as daring considering its utter defiance of tech industry pieties. To make matters even better, Chairman Pai himself repeatedly pointed to the hypocrisy of tech’s justifications for net neutrality, since most of their fearmongering described tactics that the tech industry itself used to censor and control the internet.
Even before Pai was able to get the policy repealed, Silicon Valley went apoplectic. To list just the most egregious example, the CEO of Cloudfare, a company best known for being able to shut down websites on a whim, contemplated throttling Pai’s internet connection in revenge: a frightening statement about the power of private companies to treat an essential service like the internet as their personal playground, as well as their sense of entitlement to do just that. And now that the policy’s actually gone? Well, let’s just say that policymakers should take serious notice of what has happened.
In particular, they should take note of what happened when Chairman Pai appeared in a joint video with the conservative website the Daily Caller set to the tune of the (admittedly dated) meme anthem known as the “Harlem Shake.” It was a fairly silly performance, and even the Caller acknowledged in its attached article that it was “driv[ing] memes into the ground.” But apparently, YouTube (which is owned by famed net neutrality proponent Google) was not so amused, because briefly the video was taken down in response to a copyright claim by Harry Rodrigues, the man originally responsible for the “Harlem Shake” song. And lest you be in any doubt, Rodrigues was crystal clear that his copyright strike was politically motivated.
Now, until very recently, one would have expected Google or YouTube to refuse this kind of thing. After all, weaponizing copyright to shut down messages of which one disapproves is the very thing that copyright doves (myself included) have repeatedly warned against, particularly in the digital age. And again, until very recently, Google agreed. But as soon as a copyright strike was weaponized to take down a message of which Google disapproved? Well, they simply stepped aside and let it happen.
Had Ajit Pai or the Daily Caller been any other user, this would have been the end of the story, as they likely would have been trapped in YouTube’s byzantine copyright appeals process too long for the video to ever reappear. But censoring the head of a major federal regulatory agency, and a well-known conservative publication, is not that easy, and so the video was eventually put back up after massive public condemnation, including even from the usually pro-net neutrality Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But then, EFF has a history of being principled on the abuse of intellectual property, and tech companies like Google are quite a bit past caring about principle. Indeed, as an alarming recent story from the Wall Street Journal documents, Google and Facebook in particular have made a point of exercising ever more heavy-handed monopolistic power over content on their platforms, to the point where it is accurate to call them a content “duopoly.” The article quotes rogue Silicon Valley tech baron Peter Thiel, who says that because Google in particular “doesn’t have to worry about competing with anyone, it has wider latitude to care about… its impact on the wider world.” Once, figures like Thiel might have seen this as a good thing, back when Silicon Valley was seen as pushing the country in a more broadly libertarian direction. Indeed, many Republicans seem to still be blinkered with this perception, or at least seem to be too masochistic in the face of tech’s would-be Randian supermen (or, more accurately given the industry’s radical turn toward social justice radicalism, Randian Super-nonbinaries) to fight back against the industry’s overreach.
There are, of course, two major problems with the perception of tech barons as lone, Atlas Shrugged-style individualists. First, massive amounts of their revenue and power comes from partnering with government. Second, unlike Rand’s protagonists, these captains of industry are leveraging their economic power not in the service of solitary egoism, but instead in pursuit of totalitarian pathological altruism. The only thing they share with Rand’s heroes, in other words, is the near-monopoly power that some of them possess, with none of the ennobling qualities that make that power seem justified.
The fact is that, as the Journal story points out, and as the Ajit Pai episode confirms, tech’s lack of competition has given it a level of power and hubris beyond what any group of private companies should have. Say what you will about Internet Service Providers (ISPs), but none of them have willfully taken down a video featuring a major public servant out of retaliation for his pushing a policy they didn’t favor. They’ve understood Washington’s power to check them well enough not to do that. But to companies who threaten to cut off advertising dollars unless articles they disagree with are taken down, who try to render politically conservative employees unemployable for the crime of speaking their opinions, who force left-leaning think tanks to fire anyone who breathes a word of criticism at them, and who leverage vulgar smears to create a permanent black mark on disfavored politicians? This is business-as-usual.
The tech temper tantrum over net neutrality will almost certainly get worse from here. More stories like Pai and the Daily Caller’s ordeal will come to light. In the process, more and more public servants, thinkers, and voters will come to realize the ugly truth: that tech companies believe they have the right to reprogram Americans’ brains just as much as they can reprogram their apps. The end of net neutrality is but an opening shot in a continuing war to make sure that does not happen.