Silicon Valley harassment of conservatives is only the beginning of the illiberal left’s march through corporate bureaucracies.
Conservatives cannot afford to do nothing, because inaction will lead to escalating harassment—not only from Silicon Valley, but from other corporate behemoths that operate chokepoints within the communications sector and the financial architecture. Sen. Josh Hawley’s plan for limiting the ability of social media companies to discriminate against conservatives, the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, is a first attempt at responding to the illiberal left.
Silicon Valley's tactics are not new. The left has refined its methods in universities and journalistic institutions. It starts with a critical mass of supporters within the bureaucracy. Left-wing activists then make demands and the bureaucracy, after some pro forma soul-searching, yields. This is the pattern when a college disinvites a speaker or when a magazine fires a writer for views that left-wing activists dislike. But the confrontation between the left-wing bureaucrats and activists is largely a sham. The activists are giving the bureaucrats a pretext—safety, commerce, and (most Orwellian of all) inclusion—for advancing their own political preferences.
The use of these tactics to disinvite speakers from liberal private colleges is regrettable, but there are conservative private colleges, and most college students attend state schools anyway. It is disappointing when woke activists make hiring decisions for The Atlantic, but there are other magazines a click away. These tactics become most dangerous when the illiberal left uses a number of corporate chokepoints to harass or silence the opposition. Google has a virtual monopoly of search results, and a small number of Internet payment processors and credit card companies can—if they choose—cut a person or group off from the Internet economy. Using social media to harass, deplatform, and demonetize individuals and groups on the right is a trial run for these tactics elsewhere in the Internet and financial services ecosystem.
Many conservatives believe that the market—in theory—can correct the problem of Silicon Valley giants discriminating against conservatives. But this doesn't work out so well in practice. People who don’t like an issue of The New Republic can read something else. But if the monopolistic Google stops showing a conservative author’s work in search results, then people cannot read that person's writing (in theory they can, but they won’t). And if the credit card companies won’t process your payments, you're out of luck.
Libertarian-minded conservatives claim the theory of market action means that any group harmed by a Silicon Valley monopoly needs to build its own social media giants and credit card cartels—or else has it coming. According to this theory, because of the “market” I can use prepaid cell phones under a fake name. I can contact the executives (if not by phone, by carrier pigeon, perhaps). I can go out and build my own networks of cell phone towers. If I can’t, well—the market has spoken.
This is nonsense. And it isn’t really the theory of the market. In the free market system, powerful actors are often constrained from injuring their customers. A telephone service provider cannot eliminate my cell phone service because some executive does not like my opinion about abortion or because some activist has complained that he feels “unsafe” at the thought that I might make pro-life phone calls (an argument that is no more stupid and disingenuous than the complaint that Kevin Williamson made his colleagues at The Atlantic feel unsafe). Collusion by the five major cell phone carriers could make life more difficult for me, but unlike social media companies, they are not legally allowed to refuse me service relative to other similar customers. And the market works just fine.
There is a lesson here about how to check the increasingly aggressive alliance of activist bullies and bureaucratic commissars. When it comes to gatekeeper institutions (the largest search engine, social media, and financial services firms), discretion to discriminate on the basis of political beliefs and lawful statements should be curtailed. To put it another way, Mastercard, Google, PayPal, and Facebook should no more be able to deny equal service on the basis of political beliefs than AT&T.
The details of how to codify these practices are a matter for lawyers and legislators. Hawley has proposed one potential regulation of social media, but this is only a first draft, and for only one class of corporate gatekeepers.
Time is of the essence. It won’t do to stick with the tactics of the last thirty years, which have confronted the illiberal left on college campuses and, while winning the occasional battle, have decisively lost the war. Losing the war for access to the Internet and the financial services architecture will have more severe consequences than a disinvitation from Middlebury College.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.