A bipartisan project: reining in the tech monopolies

As political analysts increasingly point to a Blue Wave approaching in November’s midterms, the U.S. appears to be on the cusp of a divided government. What will the next two years look like if a Democratic-led House of Representatives must coexist alongside a Republican administration?

Cynics are already predicting that divided government will produce new depths of partisan dysfunction and paralysis — an endless parade of showdowns, shutdowns and breathless cable news shouting matches. Pundits will gleefully start pointing fingers, spinning voters on which party is most to blame as the gears of government grind to a halt.

But for progressives who honestly believe government can and must be a force for, well progress, winning the cable news blame game isn’t enough. The Democrats’ challenge will be, therefore, to cut through the toxicity and find opportunities for bipartisan action. It’s a tall order, to be sure — some critics might even say a pipe dream. But here’s one idea of where to start: a serious legislative effort to address the unaccountable power of the giant tech monopolies whose Octopus-like tentacles now reach every facet of our lives and manipulate everything from our politics to our purchases.

Every week that passes seems to bring new headlines about the misdeeds of Silicon Valley titans like Facebook and Google, from shocking invasions of our privacy to algorithms that promote extremism and fake news.

These scandals have forced Americans to confront the central role these platforms have come to play in our society. In a very real sense, almost every piece of information we’re exposed to online — and every link we’re presented to click on — is influenced (if not outright determined) by opaque, proprietary algorithms conceived of, by and for the internet’s monopoly platforms.

This staggering power has amassed rapidly into very few hands — an outcome accelerated by controversial acquisitions that regulators have rubber-stamped with barely a second look. Even more troubling, these platforms are largely shielded from any serious accountability by special “safe harbor” immunities that shield online businesses (but not analogous offline competitors) from any legal consequences if users leverage their platforms for illegal or dangerous activity; for example, to issue death threats or hawk opioids or sell pirated content.

It's time for lawmakers and regulators in Washington to take a fresh look at whether these competition standards and safe harbor laws need to be updated to address the reality of the internet as it exists today. The Federal Trade Commission is holding an unprecedented series of hearings on these and related topics.

To be clear, we shouldn’t humor President Trump’s childish broadsides at Google for daring to include critical articles about him in its search results. Government-imposed censorship to soothe the hurt feelings of a wannabe autocrat is morally repulsive and fundamentally un-American. Rather, we need a sober, deliberative and fact-based process to modernize our country’s legislative and regulatory framework for the digital age. Encouragingly, there seems to be a truly bipartisan appetite for exactly this kind of effort, with senators as ideologically diverse as Elizabeth Warren and Orrin Hatch finding common ground in calls for action.

A bipartisan internet reform effort could also include — at long last — a legislative solution on net neutrality. Contrary to the conventional wisdom on the issue, support for net neutrality cuts across party lines. The basic idea that broadband providers and gatekeeper platforms shouldn’t be able to block, throttle or unfairly discriminate against any lawful content isn’t actually that controversial; it’s broadly popular among both Democratic and Republican voters and is supported by just about every lobbying group in Washington.

Where the recent FCC battles on net neutrality kept running into landmines was on the wonkier question of whether the entire internet should be regulated under outdated 80-year-old utility laws — a framework notorious for sclerosis — or under the more modern, innovation-friendly “information services” rules specifically created for online providers in 1996.

Let’s be honest: Voters want net neutrality protections restored, and if Congress can deliver a bill that permanently protects this right, they generally don't care one bit about which title of the Federal Communications Act the protections are under. Re-embracing the bipartisan, Clinton-era light-touch “information services” framework is Democrats’ only option for a bill that might actually pass. The fact that it’s actually the better policy choice should matter for something, too.

Should Democrats retake the House next year, this kind of comprehensive internet reform package will offer the rare opportunity for a bipartisan legislative win. And in addition to the substantive victory, it’s also good politics — a reminder to voters why a more expansive vision of pragmatic, effective government isn’t so far-fetched after all.

Clayola Brown (cbrown@apri.org) is the National President of the A. Philip Randolph Institute (AFL-CIO).

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
41°