It is not news to even the most casual political observer that hypocrisy abounds in Washington, D.C. Politicians routinely shift with the political winds while American families and businesses are left helplessly flapping in those partisan breezes. On no issue in recent years has this been more evident than “big tech” companies. More specifically on the issues of net neutrality and social media regulation, the two major parties have swapped almost identical sets of talking points.
Back in 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Obama administration initiated a process to regulate the internet as a public utility. This effort, which became widely known as “net neutrality,” would have mandated that internet service providers (ISPs) treat all content equally. It prevented ISPs from dictating terms of services and from creating innovative pricing models for their myriad customers.
Naturally, this was controversial. Republicans bristled at this intrusion on a free and open internet. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) likened the move to the Affordable Care Act, saying, “It puts the government in charge of determining internet pricing, terms of service, and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities, and higher prices for consumers.” Others similarly pushed back on the notion that the internet should be treated as a public utility by the federal government.
Fast-forward to the present day, however, and the narrative has flipped. On the heels of a number of conservative Twitter and Facebook accounts being limited or deactivated, many Republican members of Congress are now calling for regulation of big tech companies. Scores of hearings were called where the CEOs of these companies were hauled before a variety of subcommittees to be berated from both sides of the political aisle.
For those watching those hearings, if the Republican talking points rang any bells, they probably should have. Led by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), congressional Republicans quite literally demanded the “neutrality” of tech companies. In their own words, the goal was to have these companies “submit to an external audit that proves by clear and convincing evidence that their algorithms and content-removal practices are politically neutral.”
During the old debates over net neutrality, the leading proponent of that move, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), said it was necessary to prevent broadband providers from blocking sites they don’t like and controlling American families’ access to information. In a testy exchange with Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, Cruz chastised him, saying, “Who elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear?” The parallels are painfully clear.
Make no mistake, the hypocrisy is bipartisan. After years of fighting against ISPs having the ability to set their own terms of service, their gripe with tech companies in 2020 seemed to be that there wasn;t enough censorship. At one of those many hearings, Markey admonished Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “The issue is not that the companies before us today are taking too many posts down,” Markey said. “The issue is that they’re leaving too many dangerous posts up.”
In what seemed like a blink of an eye, Republicans became advocates of government intervention to ensure “fairness” on the internet. On the other hand, Democrats went from opposing any effort of private companies to treat certain content differently to demanding they do so even more fervently than they already do. Meanwhile, families and businesses that rely on the internet for their livelihoods just want a little certainty. The two major parties running the show in Washington can’t even provide that for them.
There was a time when Republicans understood the dangers of dictating terms of service to private companies and regulating the internet in this way. Sadly, when it became politically convenient, they were perfectly happy to adopt the rhetoric of their left-wing counterparts. It is encouraging that Democrats have, for now, realized the virtue of allowing private companies to operate outside of government influence. However, there is no indication this enlightenment will last and there are already rumblings that congressional Democrats will bring the regulatory hammer down once again on tech companies to mandate aggressive censorship. And around the cycle will go.
Former Republican Congressman Ron Paul once poignantly said, “If you give up one percent, you give up 100 percent of the principle, because one percent becomes two percent until it becomes 30 percent.” Congressional Republicans have conceded that government has a role in overseeing the internal decisions of private companies. They’ve thus embarked down a dangerously slippery slope that will take them further than they are willing to go.
If nothing else, this saga illustrates exactly why the government has no business regulating the internet. Washington provides no certainty for the economy or the businesses and families that comprise it. The blatant swap of talking points demonstrates that Washington is guided by political expediency, not what is in the best interests of the nation. All levelheaded policymakers have a duty to try to save the internet from the same fate.