Big Tech’s arrogance is creating a new appetite for trust-busting.
In 1953, Charles Erwin Wilson, former CEO of General Motors and President Dwight Eisenhower’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, told the U.S. Senate that he had sold his GM stock with a memorable phrase. “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” As of his nomination, Wilson had clearly wised up.
Today, it is far from impossible to imagine a tech CEO being forced to eventually make the same admission about their industry, and sooner rather than later. Why? Well, as a headline in Axios this week announces, “Tech is at war with the world” because, as Axios editor, Mike Allen writes, “America’s largely romantic view of its tech giants — Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, etc. — is turning abruptly into harsh scrutiny. Silicon Valley suddenly faces a much more intrusive hand from Washington.”
Indeed, the Axios piece even compares the level of suspicion directed at tech in this moment to the suspicion of big business that gave birth to Theodore Roosevelt’s trust-busting enterprises. Considering that all this is happening at the same time that another confrontational, nationalist Republican is sitting in the White House, that should be doubly alarming to the tech sector. Particularly given that said Republican’s chief strategist has already called for regulating tech giants like Google and Facebook as if they were public utilities.
This kind of solution is likely to get more and more attractive, if tech keeps up its recent behavior. As far back as January of this year, the New York Times was already observing that tech giants were behaving as if they were invincible to federal checks on their power. In the telling of the Times, tech’s biggest problem was that it was now dominated by five large companies — Facebook, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple — who had long since ceased to be scrappy disruptive actors and had instead become oppressive incumbents shutting down competition. At the time, the Times story could only mournfully note that no disruptors appeared to be willing to rise up and challenge these five behemoths.
Since that story, tech has abused its incumbent power in increasingly shameless ways, particularly by trying to use its dominance in Silicon Valley as a cudgel with which to assert dominance over political discourse in America. Axios notes this particular trend as the number one cause of growing suspicion toward tech, writing, “After the  election, the left was furious about the spread of fake news online, which is sure to get worse. And a lot of conservatives worry about the tech giants injecting liberal bias into their handling of political comments and stories.”
As it turns out, the situation is far worse than these two sentences suggest. One story in the New York Times notes, for example, that the infamous Silicon Valley gadfly and Trump backer Peter Thiel was nearly shamed off the board of Facebook by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who admitted that “I’m so mystified by [Thiel’s] support for Trump for our President (sic), that for me it moves from ‘different judgment’ to ‘bad judgment.’” Thiel’s only Trump supporting peer, Palmer Luckey, was not so lucky and was forced to abandon the company he started purely because of his political opinions.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Maoist shamefest that led to the firing of Google engineer James Damore, multiple employees of the search giant have anonymously communicated alarming details about their workplace to conservative tech critics such as Allum Bokhari of Breitbart Tech. These complaints paint a picture of a cultlike workplace environment more concerned with adherence to social justice orthodoxy than even with the happiness and well-being of workers, where violence against people with divergent opinions is tolerated, and where (most frighteningly) results in the Google search engine are manipulated for partisan ends. And this isn’t exclusive to Google: companies like Patreon and Airbnb have become increasingly determined to wield their terms of service as political cudgels, going so far as to ban users merely for being suspected of holding the wrong views.
Prominent Republicans and Democrats in Washington seem to get this already. Indeed, fear of the overweening power of tech may be the only issue on earth that can unify the likes of Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). But overly wide latitude that many Republicans, and particularly members of Conservatism, Inc. are willing to give to business, combined with the similarly excessive latitude that establishment Democrats will offer to institutions enforcing political correctness, still loom large as obstacles. Consumers and competitors will have to push both political parties past these respective gag reflexes, before all of America’s internet habits are subject to a gag trademarked and engineered by Silicon Valley.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos awarded the James Smithson Bicentennial medal last year (Wikimedia Commons)