Simon & Schuster recently terminated its contract to publish the book “The Tyranny of Great Technology” by Republican Senator Josh Hawley for promoting dubious objections to the Congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. Hawley responded by denouncing the decision as a “direct attack on the first amendment”.
Numerous commentators Hawley’s claim rightly mocks…. Under the Supreme Court precedent, Hawley has no constitutional right to compel Simon & Schuster to publish his book. Indeed, such an effort would be in violation of the publisher’s First Amendment right to refuse publication from authors whom he refuses.
However, Hawley’s statement is not simply the result of ignorance. It is rooted in a broader worldview, according to which the government should significantly increase the power to control the private sector and thus to restrict constitutional rights. This vision is widespread right among “national conservatives”. But it also has close analogues on the left. Both variants are threats to freedom….
Hawley and other national conservatives claim that big tech firms have too much influence in the political speech market and can therefore be pressured to publish material they object to. The government would, of course, have to decide what qualifies as appropriate non-discrimination. This line of reasoning resembles ongoing claims that tech firms’ influence on political discourse warrants them breaking up (as Senator Elizabeth Warren and others advocate) or forcing them to shut down political utterances that governments believe are inaccurate, “hate speech.” or otherwise dangerous. Here, too, the government would have to decide what is so big as a company that its influence has to be limited and what is too imprecise or poorly qualified as language to allow it on social media.
Both right and left have gone astray in their eagerness to counter supposedly dangerous concentrations of corporate influence. Government control over online language and economic activity does not reduce the concentration of power. It increases it. Instead of a flawed market with competing companies, we have a single center of power – the federal government – that decides what qualifies as language equality (Hawley), what qualifies as misleading or “hate speech” deserving of repression (Hawley). the left-wing approach), and which private actors allegedly have excessive influence that needs to be curbed (both). Furthermore, the monopoly regulator in question is far from being a neutral arbitrator. The party in power has obvious incentives to promote the speech of its supporters and to suppress that of its opponents.
Conservatives, comfortable with their own preferred leaders in such great power, should wonder if they have similar confidence in President-elect Biden, Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris, or Senator Warren.
Progressives should wonder how they feel about it when they hand it over to the likes of Hawley.
In other parts of the article I will continue to discuss how the ideas put forward by Hawley and his colleagues on the left may threaten other freedoms, not just freedom of expression.
My perspective here differs in some ways from what co-blogger Eugene Volokh took in his recent insightful New York Times on the same subject. While I disagree with some of the moderation and content decisions made by “big tech” companies, I am less concerned about their influence than Eugene and possibly more about the dangers of using government regulations to control social media (though) I don’t think so Eugene actually advocated the latter.
After receiving death threats on social media, including one from a Cesar Sayoc report later known as the “pipe bomber”, I am far from uncritically admiring (even though it cracked down) all of the content on “big tech” sites more effective in recent years). However, for reasons outlined in my opinion, I remain cautious about giving the government wide authority to restrict or mandate what can appear on social media and other websites.