Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
The internet was born out of efforts to build a decentralized network that could survive a nuclear war. What made the internet so liberating in its early years of mass adoption was the very decentralized nature, the haphazard networks that did not require a rigid integrated hierarchy, that had made it useful to the military, that allowed everyone to have a voice without regard to political hierarchies.
The underlying bare-bones infrastructure that made the open internet possible still exists, but has little relevance to a system dominated by a handful of platforms like Google and Amazon. The infrastructure of these companies may be decentralized, but their leadership has centralized control over the services that define how most companies and individuals actually use the internet and connect to each other.
Anyone can create a website, but as long as most internet traffic is controlled by Google and Facebook, that site can at any moment be made invisible to most internet users at a swipe from a Big Tech giant. The decentralized structure of the internet will always allow pockets of resistance, but the centralized structure of the companies that dominate it means that they will be easily kept isolated out of sight.
The internet is our economy and our marketplace of ideas. And it is under the control of a handful of individuals and companies who, beyond becoming fabulously wealthy, believe that they are socially obligated to uphold their own political and cultural norms by banishing those voices they disagree with and promoting those voices whom they agree with. No railroad or oil baron ever had the power to shape political discourse that the bosses of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other FAANGS do today.
But big tech monopolies are premised on their willingness to promote the agendas of big government.
Power and politics are intertwined in the monopolistic affairs of Big Tech titans who rely on the social sanction that comes from the progressive side of politics to maintain and expand their holdings. The conflation of progressive politics with social utility has made censorship into the price of monopoly. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the pressures Mark Zuckerberg is facing in America and the European Union to silence political dissent from the right or forfeit his leadership role at Facebook.
Big tech is indivisible from big government. Our government is as democratic as our internet.
The monopolization of the press in the previous century aligned with the growing power of big government. Elections are as free as the power of people to debate the merits of their ideas are. When a handful of companies control the content of those ideas, elections can become an afterthought.
The decentralized internet had temporarily disrupted media monopolies, but as big tech titans centralized their control over the internet, they chose to promote the ‘reliable’ content of media cartels whose politics they agreed with over ‘unreliable’ individual voices with eccentric politics. And then big tech bosses began buying up portions of the media and using them to push their own agendas.
Big government, big tech, and big media all share similar agendas for a predictable world that can be efficiently controlled through a handful of buttons. Another way to describe that worldview is socialism.
Conservatives often think of socialism as something mumbled by nervous men with foreign accents, when it’s often the work of major corporations, think tanks ensconced in national capitals and major cities, and foundations financed by men who were once the wealthiest business leaders of their era.
There are two groups that are prone to think of people as collective masses to be reshaped en masse: radical theoreticians who see people as types that fit into groups, and large organizations who already control huge groups of people and want better tools for doing so. Or, as they’re better known, radicals and moderates. The radicals want a fundamental revolution while the moderates just want control.
The problem goes beyond what Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg might want.
The medium is the message. When the medium of the internet was decentralized, it was a haven for intellectual diversity and a wide political spectrum. But when the medium was centralized, then the internet became an echo chamber for a narrow set of views that had to fit a simple category.
And the people who controlled the categories developed the power to eliminate those views.
A centralized medium, whether it’s network television, a nationwide newspaper chain, or an internet of a handful of mega-platforms, will always advance the centralized politics of big government.
That’s in its nature.
The exact definitions of ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ may change with time and place, but individualistic politics will remain the domain of individuals, and collectivist politics the domain of collectivists.
That’s why the bigger the organization, the more likely it is to embrace the mantra of diversity.
Diversity disguises the unrepresentative nature of the organization by deploying a group of people who appear to be different, but agree on all the big questions that the organization really cares about. The stakeholders of diversity organizations all want it to do things, they rarely want it not to do things. They all speak in the positive rights jargon of entitlements, not the negative rights of individual freedoms.
What they ultimately want is for the organization they serve to be bigger and stronger than ever.
We know what a collectivist internet looks like. And many of us remember what a decentralized internet used to look like. But what would a decentralized internet look like and what can we do about it?
Rewriting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a popular conservative cause, might be worth doing, but isn’t likely to make much of a difference. Breaking up the big monopolies on anti-trust grounds, especially Google, Facebook, and Amazon, would introduce fresh air into a musty room.
But we are still a long way from an open internet because most of us are part of the problem.
The decentralized internet was chaotic and occasionally inconvenient. Google, Facebook, and Amazon have the dominant power that they do because they made it all too convenient in some ways, even as they took away user agency, eliminated alternatives, and covertly stripped away basic functionality.
Billions of people made a deal with the digital devil and never asked how much all of this would cost.
The FAANGS have a clear vision for the internet. They want it to go away. What they want is for all of us to have smart speakers in our homes, smart apps built into our clothes, wireless contact lenses, and other narrow pipelines that will put them in total control of everything that we could possibly ask for.
They’re choking off the messy, complicated diversity of the internet and turning it into a walled garden.
And they might succeed.
If they do, the site where you’re reading this, and so much else, will become the equivalent of microfilm, outdated technology held to by a handful of enthusiasts, while everyone is getting the latest trends from CNN or Vox piped directly to their smart displays or spoken out loud by their smart assistants without having to get their hands dirty by opening an actual browser or the dying art of typing in a URL.
After brief flirtation with an open internet, we’ll be right back to network television, enabled by what was once a daring technology. Social networking will still exist, but policed by algorithms that quickly remove politically incorrect views and conducted by participants who know that politically incorrect views can get them fired and blacklisted. Not only is this where we’re headed, but we’re nearly there.
Big tech has already decided what it’s going to do about us. The question is what are we going to do about it? If we want a free and open internet, we have to fight for policies that will bring one about. That means championing the breakup of big tech monopolies and cutting off the government contracts that enrich them at the political level. But it also means changing how we use the internet.
That’s easier said than done. It requires a change of perspective.
Big tech and big government both promise convenience in a single package. They both offer lots of things for free as long as you don’t contemplate how you’re paying for all those freebies. Why not get free health and education from the same government? Why not get your phone, your search engine, and all your news from Google? And your entertainment and retail orders from Amazon?
But beyond the philosophical intangibles of trading freedom for convenience, there are the tangible inconveniences of letting a single leviathan own your life. Big organizations only appear to be more efficient. Google’s single search engine is much worse than the multitude of search engines that once existed. Amazon offers every possible counterfeit Chinese product posing as the real thing.
You can get search results in nanoseconds or shoes in a day, if you don’t mind that they’re garbage.
Massive centralization doesn’t make things better, not for companies or governments, for customers or citizens. What may appear at first to be convenient not only takes away your choice, but your outcome. Not only don’t you get what you really wanted, but there are suddenly no alternatives to the substandard services that have become the norm in the government or in a handful of monopolies.
Legislation and executive orders alone won’t bring about a decentralized internet. We have to want one. And we have to remember that we want one, not just because it’s the only environment in which conservative views can thrive without being wiped away with a Big Tech swipe, but because it’s better.
A free society, a free economy, and a free marketplace of ideas are all intertwined together. When any of these are monopolized, all of them are monopolized, and then life starts taking on an East German tinge of incompetence, unavailability, and decisions made by hidden bodies to whom there is no appeal, even when the décor is shiny and modern, and the music is trendy, and it all looks like the future.
Freedom appears inconvenient when you’re no longer used to it, but it’s amazing what it can do for you.