Opinion

WILFORD: Anti-Tech Sentiment Translates To Poor Policy Solutions

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Andrew Wilford National Taxpayers' Union Foundation
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Technology’s role in our day-to-day lives has increased drastically over the last couple decades, as has the prominence of large tech companies. Never has the central role of technology been more apparent than during coronavirus lockdowns, during which the vast majority of Americans’ socializing, communication and entertainment has taken place online.

But at the same time, negative opinions about large tech companies have grown in the last few years. Though Americans generally support the companies themselves, more than half of Americans are concerned about tech concentration and support breaking up tech companies “that control too much of the economy.” Unfortunately, most of these proposed solutions are more dangerous than the alleged problems.

Attacks on tech companies in the United States have come from both sides of the aisle. Republican Senator Josh Hawley, in response to claims of anti-conservative content moderation policies, has threatened to revoke Section 230, which protects social media platforms from civil suits on the basis of content posted on their sites.

Repeal of Section 230 would greatly threaten freedom of speech, however, and not necessarily in favor of conservatives. Without Section 230, for example, Twitter could be sued by a politician or public figure for a defamatory tweet posted by one of its millions of users.

The obvious solution for Twitter, therefore, would be to delete any speech that could potentially spark litigation by more powerful people, reducing the ability of average users to interact directly with people with far larger platforms. Rather than reducing censorship, repeal of Section 230 would encourage tech companies to do it in order to avoid litigation.

Yet the blue team has plenty of bad tech ideas as well. California, America’s mad scientist laboratory of harmful tax policy proposals, has kicked around the idea of a “data dividend.” Specifically championed by the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, the idea would require tech companies that profit off of Americans’ data to reimburse either those Americans or states for the value of the data collected.

That might sound nice, but the reality is that your individual data is not worth very much — one man sold his for less than half a cent. It’s only valuable in the broader context of millions of data points, and even there, it’s not a cash cow to be milked. After all, with free-to-use sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, et cetera, you’re already receiving compensation for your data — in the form of free use of that site. Should regulators start demanding that tech companies pay back what they get out of that cashless transaction, they would have to find other ways to raise revenue, possibly through a subscription system.

And it’s not just Americans harnessing anti-tech feelings to come up with bad ideas. Australian regulators, for example, have considered demanding that websites such as Facebook and Google pay news websites for featuring links to their websites on their platforms. Never mind that such sites are desperate for the clicks that Google and Facebook facilitate, but both sites have suggested that they would simply remove links to news outlets from their platforms should such a regulation be put in place. Talk about hurting news media and access to journalism to own Big Tech.

Some national regulators are in a tizzy about the inherently global nature of the internet, as well. Ireland recently demanded that Facebook not transfer data on Europeans over to the United States, a requirement that could threaten to impose arbitrary national boundaries on the free flow of data and information.

None of this is to say that there is no room for smart changes to regulation to address modern challenges. But any such rules must be balanced with the need to preserve the unprecedented benefits that the internet has brought to people across the world — access to vast stores of information and instant worldwide communication. Rules that kneecap tech companies in the name of political or social agendas benefit no one at all.

Andrew Wilford is a policy analyst with the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to tax policy research and education at all levels of government.