“You have this growing cartel between big government, big media, and Big Tech” that is “punishing any individual that disagrees,” says Rachel Bovard, Senior Director of Policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute.
Criticisms of mask mandates and lockdowns are being suppressed, including a roundtable with leading doctors and public policy experts held by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
How does self-government survive in an era of, as Bovard describes it, “massive, concentrated corporate control” over speech?
Jan Jekielek: Rachel Bovard, it’s such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Rachel Bovard: Glad to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: Rachel, I wanted to start off with something that struck me in a recent op-ed that you did. You said that Facebook’s content policies aren’t really concerned with privacy or protecting personal information. They’re about protecting the politically and culturally-powerful by suppressing criticism, punishing descent, and crushing counter narratives.
Presumably you would apply this beyond just Facebook. You were reacting to a specific scenario here, but let’s use this as the beginning of our conversation today.
Ms. Bovard: This is how big tech now does business. All of their content moderation in my mind is very heavily politically-influenced by the politically and culturally-powerful left.
You see this in how they make up rules to deal with current political situations. We saw this most infamously with Hunter Biden’s laptop. Suddenly, Twitter had a hacked materials policy.
Suddenly, Facebook didn’t want personal information to circulate, but of course there are myriad instances in which they do allow personal information to circulate about people that don’t matter; about people like us.
They are very much, I think, aligned with progressive ideology which increasingly reflects itself through the Democratic Party. Leading Democrats know this, and they know they can now use these big tech platforms to shield themselves from public criticism, from critique, from information that voters need to hold their elected officials accountable.
Big tech has become an arm of the Democratic Party in that regard, which I think is very dangerous. In a robust and healthy democracy you do not want that to happen—but it’s happening.
Mr. Jekielek: Just prior to us speaking right now I was speaking with Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, I recently did an interview with him. You’re probably familiar with his roundtable that was actually censored by YouTube, the roundtable that Governor Ron DeSantis convened with him and multiple other public health policy experts and epidemiologists.
I have to sit here thinking, “Hey, is YouTube going to let me publish this interview with one of the leading public health experts in America?”
Ms. Bovard: It’s crazy.
Mr. Jekielek: Here’s an example. No, it’s absolutely crazy. To your point, a platform like YouTube basically thinks it can make the decision whether scientifically-based information that someone who’s a top probably world expert is deciding, that they can just remove it at will. Tell me about that first.
Ms. Bovard: Yeah. Well, I think COVID-19 has really presented us with a case study in how powerful these platforms think they are because to your point, they think they can define science which is in itself a line of inquiry that is constantly changing.
Scientific discovery depends on overturning previous consensus. It depends on robust questioning, and descent, and facts, and unproving those. That’s how science moves forward. But YouTube has inserted itself, and I would say all big tech not just YouTube, but in this particular instance YouTube has inserted itself and said, “No, no. We know best.”
Their justification is, “Well, we have aligned ourselves with what the World Health Organization has decided about this COVID-19 pandemic, so anything that we think might fly in the face of what the World Health Organization has said or even question what it’s doing now constitutes misinformation.”
Need I remind you that the World Health Organization last January was telling everyone that COVID-19 was not contagious between humans so there was nothing to see here, that is who YouTube has aligned itself with.
This has, I think, manifested itself in all kinds of absurd ways. The one you just mentioned obviously like leading public health doctors in the United States cannot be featured on these platforms.
Dr. Scott Atlas, one of them, was on the Trump White house COVID-19 task force and as soon as he was appointed to that task force, all of his previous podcasts, his public speaking, a lot of it was censored from YouTube. Because now because he was with the Trump administration he was a dangerous vector of misinformation.
Scott Atlas is a renowned neuroradiologist affiliated with Stanford University. He is not the guy telling you to eat a Tide pod, but yet this is how YouTube is going to wield the hammer on what is dangerous misinformation.
Sworn testimony before the United States Senate by medical professionals was censored by YouTube for the same reasons. I mean, the level of absurdity that we’ve reached with these platforms is I think transparently obvious, but you still have people defending them. You still have people saying, “Well, it’s their right to do this.”
But I think that critique ignores the much broader problem we have when the big tech platforms are putting themselves between you and scientific information, you and potential conversations you might want to have with your doctor.
They are inserting themselves in that equation and I think it’s very, very dangerous. Not just with science but I think science presents a very significant way to talk about this problem.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. I was speaking fairly recently with Dr. Scott Atlas and of course he was a radiologist but actually his main work is as a public health policy expert for over a decade.
Somehow even for us, I wasn’t completely clear on that. You weren’t completely clear on that and that’s just because of the misinformation that’s circulating out there presumably to discredit his very important opinion.
Ms. Bovard: Yeah. Now, again, these are credible people and they work in a field that depends on inquiry, that depends on public debate and discussion of ideas. That is how science has moved us forward for thousands of years until now; until the modern era when YouTube has said, “No, no, we know, and we will decide what is appropriate information for you to hear.”
Again, this is not someone telling you to eat a Tide pod. This is someone questioning an ever-evolving knowledge about a novel virus where information is changing constantly.
This is someone, in Scott Atlas’s case. He was censored from YouTube for questioning the efficacy of a public lockdown strategy. Not saying lockdowns don’t work but saying that there are significant social consequences to keeping children away from other kids or for enhancing domestic violence and alcoholism and opioid abuse.
All of these things that we now know have come out of this lockdown pandemic, we know these things have manifested but Scott Atlas was banned for trying to raise this concern and just to talk about it.
This is, again, I keep bringing this back to how dangerous this is for a free society to not be able to discuss and debate not only public health but what public figures are doing, the public policy decisions related to public health.
All of this is what democracy is founded on. You have again massive concentrated corporate control over that type of speech, how does the self-government survive when that is the case?
Mr. Jekielek: Well, I want to bring up another very timely, I guess, piece of misinformation or disinformation. This is the idea that Officer Sicknick had been killed. There was actually a statement by the Capitol Police that suggested that early on there was also lots of evidence that that wasn’t the case.
Finally, we know that he died of natural causes. But for months, I guess, there was this narrative that was pushed forward and somehow as you mentioned, there are no limitations on this narrative blasting across all social media.
I recall someone saying that was actually the day when we heard that first information that he had possibly been killed. That was the day that the president, President Trump at the time, was removed from Twitter. It seems to be some connection. I mean very, very serious ramifications to information that turned out to be false.
Ms. Bovard: Yeah. Again they have no shame in the fact that they limit some type of material but the same material that is analogous on the other side of the political spectrum is not touched at all. I think it is a perfect example of how it’s changed how people think.
I would say at this point maybe most of America who’s news-consuming thinks that Officer Sicknick was killed by being bashed in the head with a fire extinguisher. Something we now know is demonstrably false, but that has been allowed to circulate on social media—amplified by a corporate press.
Any dissent has been declared unpatriotic, or you’re with the rioters or any sort of ad hominems. Now we know what’s actually happening and there’s no fact checks; nobody is going back and correcting those stories. You can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube.
Again, it goes to this point that the decisions that big tech makes to suppress or amplify certain types of information not only changes and informs the national narrative but I would say, changes again how people form their own opinions and thoughts and limits the information that should be going into that calculation, and isn’t.
I think this has very dangerous effects downstream. Because at that point you start to change your behavior, you start to change how you vote, you start to change how you engage in society when all of this information is pushed in one direction. You think you’re getting objective fact, and you’re not. How do you correct for that?
Mr. Jekielek: Well, now, it’s a very interesting question too because there’s on one hand—there’s this open season on certain types of ideas, basically promulgation—I guess, or at least no suppression.
On the other hand when it comes to these same media companies for example, would put out the Officer Sicknick’s story, relate with the fire extinguisher, for which from what I understand, there really was never any evidence. Those same companies are pushing these same social media giants to censor other views.
Ms. Bovard: I think this is a really insidious element of how big tech censors information now because for the last five or six years it was really about Facebook, Twitter, Google acting generally collectively but within their own walled gardens.
But now we see big tech increasingly working with big media who is working with elements of big government to push one narrative in one direction and crush anyone who disagrees.
I think the best example of this is how under the guise of fact-checking information, big tech works with the corporate media. They use the corporate media to fact-check themselves and obviously they’re all pushing in one direction here. There is no real conservative fact-check of this information. In fact, that’s deemed misinformation.
You have this growing cartel between big government, big media, and big tech that is suppressing dissent. That is controlling how information is perceived, what is allowed to circulate, and for how long. Again, punishing any individual that disagrees with that.
I think the Trump example is really illustrative here because it wasn’t just big tech he was removed from—all Twitter, Facebook, all the social media platforms. It was then his credit card processor stopped working with the campaign. His email service provider dropped the campaign. Two of his banks said they would no longer do business with him.
This is the kind of social credit score analogy that we’re starting to see here in the United States where it’s your behavior on one platform because of this alliance between big media, big tech, big government. I would say big corporations now too, you get banned from Facebook.
Okay, well, maybe Uber now doesn’t want to pick you up or maybe Bank of America will turn over your details willy-nilly to the government like they did with a lot of people coming here for the January 6th protest which wasn’t supposed to turn violent.
We don’t even know if these people participated in the breach but their information was turned over. This I think is a very concerning development that goes beyond big tech at this point that we’ve really just seen in the last year.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to touch on something you just mentioned which was the information of these people basically being released or their bank information. I remember not too long ago, I think it was maybe Apple that was basically saying, “Under no circumstances are we going to unlock this phone which had information.”
I think it was for someone who had been charged with very, very serious crimes,”Because we just simply don’t do this sort of thing.” I’m wondering, have you seen the selective gate-passing on of information by corporations?
Ms. Bovard: Well, it’s interesting. This is one of the issues that first got me interested in what big tech was up to. If you remember back in 2013 with Edward Snowden leaks.
Whatever you think about Edward Snowden, the information he gave us demonstrated or gave evidence of the prison program, which was essentially the U.S. spy agencies working hand in glove with the big tech companies.
Then big tech really threw open the back door to the NSA and provided them details of our emails, our voice recordings, our photos, any information that NSA wanted.
We give this information willingly to these big tech companies; I think often without realizing how much information we’re passing on. These companies can very easily create an entire picture of your life, where you go, what you shop for, when you go to the doctor—all these things are available.
If big tech has a portrait of you it’s actually how they make money. This is how they make money—they collect information. But they had been sharing it with the government. Now, when this information came to light everybody disavowed it. They said, “We won’t do this anymore.”
The United States Congress passed the USA Freedom Act which tried to limit the bulk metadata collection the government was doing.
But that was I think a flashing red light for some people, anyway. It certainly woke me up to the idea that this allegiance or alliance between big tech and big government could have big consequences for not only our privacy but just what it really means to be a free individual in a free society.
Mr. Jekielek: Are you saying that your worst fears are basically coming to pass before your eyes. Is that what you’re saying?
Ms. Bovard: Yeah. In a lot of ways I never could have imagined that I would live at a time where mega corporations and big tech could work to silence a president of the United States. To really unperson a president, stripping off his rights to speak on major social media platforms but also banks refusing to work with him. Credit card processors saying, “We won’t work with you.” Email providers saying the same thing. That is ripping the guts of capitalism away from someone.
That is not just silencing you on social media. It’s saying various avenues for how you make money in this country are now going to be shut off to you. If they can do that to the president of the United States there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can stop them from doing it to you or me.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and it also works in the other direction because I remember just very recently there was this New York Post. Again, the New York Post seems to be targeted a lot, I guess.
Ms. Bovard: Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: Article about Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the BLM founders buying some very, very expensive homes. Of course she’s an avowed Marxist— I think in her own words. There’s a story there but you couldn’t share this story on Facebook, if I recall.
Ms. Bovard: Yeah, this was particularly rich from Facebook. As you mentioned the New York Post reported on the fact that this co-founder of Black Lives Matter basically said, “I’m going to purchase all these homes.” They use public information to report on this story. There were no personal details shared, no addresses. Even the city she lived in wasn’t particularly mentioned.
Facebook said, “Oh no! This violates our policy about personal and private information. You can’t share the story.” You couldn’t share it on Facebook. You couldn’t share it on Facebook Messenger. You couldn’t send it using Facebook’s services. You couldn’t share it on Instagram which Facebook owns, so they completely shut down the circulation of this story.
Now, this goes to this idea that this person is a public figure. She by virtue of the position she holds and the activism she engages in, has made herself a public figure. In the same way that celebrities have their home purchases reported on and nobody says anything about that. Presidents, where Barack Obama bought his house when he left the presidency was reported on.
Because again, this is how news circulates in society but for some reason Facebook decided, no. This is a politically powerful figure that should be shielded from any sort of criticism.
Because the stories that were circulating were political. Because again, as you point out, she’s an avowed Marxist. Highlighting the lack of transparency about maybe where the funds were going and also questioning if there was some hypocrisy between her stated ideology and the practices she was engaging in. Facebook decided to step between her and the public in that regard.
This is something we’ve seen. I mentioned this a little bit before. We’ve seen this now with leading Democrats. When Michelle Obama wanted Trump to be quiet, when she had a problem with Trump’s rhetoric, she didn’t go to Congress. She didn’t go to Trump himself. She certainly didn’t write an op-ed about it. She went to big tech and she said, “Take him off.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Congresswoman from New York, is infamous for this. She frequently criticizes Twitter for allowing critical hashtags to circulate. Tells her Twitter followers to report them as harassment.
On January 6th her communications director tried to get Twitter to remove circulation of an old tweet from the Congresswoman. It was from December and it said, “Protesting should make people uncomfortable.”
That was the quote and it was of course being circulated saying, “Well, AOC says it’s okay to make people uncomfortable with protesting. Her comms director said, “No, that’s misinformation and we’ve asked Twitter to stop circulating that tweet.”
This is a public official asking social media to limit criticism of how they do their job. Which is again, an essential feature of self-government. It is an essential feature of what democracy means. It is the ability to hold your elected officials accountable for their own words, but also to criticize and to be allowed to do that.
That fusion, I think between one political party, one political ideology and the primary speech platforms in America, that’s untenable. I think again for our self-government how we engage with it. That cannot continue and that’s not compatible with our democracy.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, the ideology that we’re talking about here—the progressive ideology. We’re talking about an ideology I think; can you tell me your thoughts here. That doesn’t necessarily actually accept that there is an objective reality or truth to be discovered. That it’s just something that’s governed by power; by who decides what is true.
Everything, as you’re talking about this, I’m thinking about that because if you did believe that it’s just a function of the power but the truth is, then all of this starts making sense.
Ms. Bovard: Right, yeah. It’s an ideology where truth changes every day. Truth is constantly redefined to meet whatever political moment we’re living in.
I’m recalling this one instance where back in the confirmation hearings for now Justice Amy Coney Barrett and Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democratic Senator launched an attack on Justice Barrett for using the term sexual preference, Obviously this was being discussed in the context of what the Supreme Court has decided regarding sexual preference.
Senator Hirono asserted that the term was offensive. Everyone was confused because how is the term preference offensive? Senator Hirono explained, well, in the context of sexual preference, it’s offensive because it implies someone can choose their gender.
Now, many of us at the time when we looked up the definition of preference, it says nothing about being offensive—it’s choice, this or that. Within five minutes after Mazie Hirono launched that attack on Amy Coney Barrett, Merriam-Webster had updated the definition of preference on its website to include that the term when used in the context of sexual preference is offensive.
That is a dictionary. A dictionary aligning itself with a Democratic Senator’s talking points against a Supreme Court nominee giving it the veneer of intellectual credibility by changing the definition of a word and adding a nuance that wasn’t there before.
That is information changing in real time in aligning with a partisan agenda. How are we supposed to survive this? Information is literally changing in real time.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and I suppose it’s a dictionary definition of exactly what you’re talking about.
Ms. Bovard: Correct. Yeah, that’s right.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re painting this picture that you have what you call big government, big tech, and let’s say big media. All kind of working together with a similar ideology or at least beholden to some extent to a certain ideology. Certainly makes it feel to a lot of people this is the truth, right?
Ms. Bovard: Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: This is what you need to believe. But if it’s not, which of course I think you contend and I do probably too, how did this happen?
Ms. Bovard: Gradually, and then all at once, as the Ernest Hemingway book goes. But I think over time these companies developed, and we’d never seen technology like this before, obviously. They became very popular. Big tech in particular became very popular.
Companies that weren’t really constrained by laws that didn’t. We didn’t have laws on the books to even deal with what these companies were doing. We don’t have a federal data privacy law. We don’t have data ownership rights to all the information that big tech now owns about us.
These companies I think created something unprecedented, but in the process they also took for themselves unprecedented amounts of power. We’ve never seen companies this big, this rich, and this powerful. We’ve never seen a company like Google that can filter information for 90 percent of America. We’ve never seen that before.
I think it happened under our noses because we didn’t even understand the threat. Because again, these are innovative products that in many ways have improved society but I think there’s a dark side to all of this that we weren’t prepared for—that our laws weren’t prepared to contend with.
You can point to any number of things but I frequently talk about the fact that the laws that govern our economy, particularly antitrust laws were not successfully enforced. Over the last two decades there’s been close to something like 750 mergers and acquisitions in the digital space that weren’t even given a second look.
It’s through that process that big tech became big tech. They became garage startups that went on to become global behemoths. Essentially acting in various markets, in various sectors, just amassing, in Google’s case in particular, a data dominance that you simply cannot compete with.
I think our policies just didn’t keep up and I think a lot of Americans didn’t know the deal we were making when we said, “click yes on that consumer agreement.” We just didn’t—we had no idea what we were signing up for.
Mr. Jekielek: On the conservative side of things you often hear this mantra where if it’s a private company, it’s not censorship. Your thoughts?
Ms. Bovard: This is again the green eyeshade argument we hear a lot. The literal definition of censorship says the government has to do it. If the government isn’t doing it, you can’t call it censorship.
Well, my answer to that is this. When you have three or four mega companies, the biggest speech platforms in the world all suppressing the same content at the same time in the same direction, the argument about whether it’s censorship or not because the government is not doing it becomes purely semantic, because the effect is exactly the same.
This is true also of when these companies sensor along ideological lines that reflect one ideology. That’s the democratic ideology. In many cases Democratic politicians love to try and outsource what would be censorship if they did it, unconstitutional censorship. But if a private actor, if you can get the private actor to do it it’s completely constitutional.
Ms. Bovard: I do think you’re seeing left-wing ideology realize that and wake up to it and say, “Oh, look, us acting through the government we can’t do this but you can. You make all the right campaign donations to me so you should be the one to do this.”
This was most recently on display when a number of House Democrats held AT&T, Verizon, and a number of ISPs before them in a committee hearing. They said to these companies, “Why are you still hosting Newsmax? Why are you still allowing One America News to circulate among all these households?”
That is the government trying to force private agents or private companies to sensor along their political lines. That is censorship. I’m sorry, you’ve just outsourced it.
I reject this again green eyeshade argument because I just think it completely misses the forest for the trees. When you have cartel ideological corporate power acting in one way, that is censorship. Again, the effect is completely the same.
Mr. Jekielek: This also has some pretty significant potentially national security implications. I’ll give you an example. Google has agreed to work with the Chinese regime on AI development but it will not work with the U.S. Military on AI development—at least that was the case when I last checked. I find that frankly astounding.
Ms. Bovard: I think a number of concerning national security aspects to what big tech is up to. Because these companies, if you ask them, “Are you American companies?” They’ll say no. They are citizens of the world, whatever that means.
But as is the case right now with Google, the race for artificial intelligence or AI is going to define the next, really the future of the global economy. Whoever reaches it first—it’s a race between the United States and China.
When you have Google willing to take the information that it developed many times in conjunction with the United States government and turn around and open an AI center in Beijing, which they have done, that raises very significant concerns.
Not only from a national security perspective, I mean, most from a national security perspective but also we want to work with American companies on American success. If they’re just going to turn around and take the best of our innovation and give it to China, which I would assert represents the most geopolitical and economic threat in the 21st century to the United States, that’s a problem.
But consider also that Amazon Web Services provides hosting services for the CIA. They have a huge contract with the federal government and this is a company that is engaged in outright politicking and engineering with elections and partisan statements—kicking off parlor because of, who knows what reason they give today? This is the company that we trust with our secrets I think there’s a lot of oversight that needs to be done in this area.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and there’s also this question of I guess patriotism and the values and this sort of thing. I mean, I don’t think we necessarily need to shy away from talking about that.
Because, for example, China under the Chinese Communist Party has demonstrated repeatedly the most important set of values, whether it’s around censorship, whether it’s around extermination of groups of people, frankly, numerous ones from everything we’ve seen.
Then at the same time, according to this progressive ideology, America is the one that’s portrayed as being villainous and inherently flawed. It’s like its own enemy or something like that. That juxtaposition is fascinating to me.
Ms. Bovard: It is and it’s really disturbing. Because all of the companies that are boycotting Georgia, for instance, over its newly-passed election law, including Major League Baseball, have no compunction whatsoever about working with China; which as you point out, is perpetuating among many other ills a genocide against its Uygur population.
Yet they’re going to call Georgia evil and a litany of names for passing what is a transparently fine election law. They’re going to buy into the lie that it does a lot of things that it doesn’t do and punish Americans over this political agenda while having no compunction at all but aligning itself with dictators.
But this, again, it’s not just a woke corporate ideology. You just saw the ambassador to the United Nations apologize very openly to the Human Rights Commission members at the United Nations for our grave sins.
[Linda Thomas-Greenfield]: Of course, when we raise issues of equity and justice at the global scale, we have to approach them with humility. We have to acknowledge that we are an imperfect union and have been since the beginning, and every day we strive to make ourselves more perfect and more just.
In a diverse country like ours that means committing to do the work. It means learning and understanding more about each other. It means engaging trailblazing groups like yours to teach, to grow, to include, to improve. It means not forgetting our past or ignoring our present, but keeping both firmly in mind as we push for a better future.
I tried to do this recently in the UN General Assembly when I spoke on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. That day and commemoration was personal for me, so I told the UN some personal stories.
I told them how my great-grandmother, Mary Thomas, born in 1865 was the child of a slave just three generations back from me. I grew up in the segregated south. I was bused to a segregated school. On weekends the Klan burned crosses on lawns in our neighborhood.
I shared these stories and others to acknowledge on the international stage that I have personally experienced one of America’s greatest imperfections. I’ve seen for myself how the original sin of slavery weaved white supremacy into our founding documents and principles.
Ms. Bovard: Need I remind you that the member countries of the Human Rights Council on the UN include countries that execute people for being gay? That is who we are going to take a second tier to; that is who we are going to apologize for.
It reminds me very often these days of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was a Democratic Senator but also at one point an ambassador to the United Nations, stood on the floor of the UN and said, “Am I ashamed to defend an imperfect democracy? No, I am not. Find me it’s equal.”
That is what has made America strong and that is what we had come to expect from our diplomats, and our companies, and the shiny examples of American success— yet now it’s almost flipped on its head. The more successful you are as a result of America the more you have to apologize for it. It’s just wrong—it’s just completely wrong.
Mr. Jekielek: Rachel, seeing all this put together, and frankly I’ve said this to a number of our guests recently, I think there’s a lot of people who could feel quite dispirited, especially if you’re in the midst of a COVID lockdown, which some of our viewers most certainly are. What happens next here for people that see the problem, but it might seem too much to deal with?
Ms. Bovard: I think there’s a number of ways this has to be dealt with. There is no silver bullet, I think, to fix this very concentrated ideological cartel power. With big government, it’s going to have its own solution, but big tech I think we can start to deal with now.
Our policies around these companies have to change. Our policies are what have allowed these companies to grow so big to dominate so much. Again these are unprecedented threats and we have to update our laws to deal with that.
I think we’re seeing some really interesting discussions right now between the right and the left about something called common carrier status—making some of these companies public utilities.
None other than Justice Clarence Thomas recently came out in support of the pursuing or thinking around this idea and he would generally just say, “Look, you have to accommodate all comers, you cannot discriminate on per your users or against your users and for that you will receive some government accommodation to help you out with that and hopefully still be able to moderate some content.” So thinking about public utility status for these companies I think is going to be very important.
It’s interesting when Justice Thomas made this argument, I thought he did it very well, because he rooted this common carrier tradition way back into the English common law. He sort of pointed out that every time societies have faced new challenges from a new technology in many ways this is the tool they’ve chosen to ensure that the biggest swath of society can benefit from this.
He points out that this was used for the telegraph, it was used for the railroads, and it was used for the telephone. All circumstances in which a new technology arose presented a unique set of challenges.
We as a society said, “This is a valuable technology, we want everyone to be able to access it, not just a few.” That in his telling it may be time for us to have that conversation about big tech as well.
Obviously, we’ve talked or people have talked ad nauseum about Section 230 reform which is this tiny provision of law that subsidizes these companies. In many ways, I think it was designed to enhance their content moderation abilities. By that, I mean helping them clean up the internet, to take down the stuff we actually don’t want to see.
Child pornography, terrorism, harassment, all of these things, we want to empower the companies to get rid of that but it’s been so judicially-bloated and stretched to become this massive bulletproof shield for some really tyrannical behavior, there’s a lot of talk about reigning that back in.
Then, finally, robust antitrust enforcement I think is something, a tradition that once existed on the right that should be once again picked up. Particularly when it comes to these big tech companies—antitrust is not regulatory, it’s not regulation, it’s law enforcement.
Why are we letting these companies get away with distorting the marketplace? Why is the party of the free market not being vigilant in its defense?
That is what our antitrust laws are designed to do, is to ensure that as a free market as possible exists, that competitors have the same rights as the big tech giants and that there is open and fair competition on the merits. That is what our antitrust laws are designed to do. We haven’t been very good about enforcing them and so I think there’s renewed interest in that angle as well.
Mr. Jekielek: You did mention on one hand that you feel like the Democratic Party is benefiting from these structures. At the same time you mentioned that there is interest in the Democratic Party in going after big tech. How does that work exactly?
Ms. Bovard: Well, it depends on the issue. I think when you think about, for instance, Section 230, Republicans and Democrats are both interested in that, but for very different reasons. Republicans want to use it to allow more speakers and more speech and Democrats by and large want to use it to restrict speech, to enhance crack down on what they define as misinformation.
But on anti-trust I do think that there is some bipartisan interest in breaking up where power has become so concentrated in the economy. Because this is just bad for consumers, it’s bad for small business, and in very many instances concentrated corporate power becomes concentrated political power.
You see these unaccountable businesses start to put the thumb on the scale of politics in ways that are fundamentally undemocratic. I think there are progressives and more grassroots conservatives both of whom object to that.
Now, there are establishment sections of both those parties who say, “Well, corporations have first amendment rights and want to do all these things. We are fine with business being able to decide who it wants to merge with and this should be unimpeded.” There’s an element of truth to those claims but I think they’ve been taken without the necessary skepticism.
They’ve been taken at face value and I think abused. It’s time for, I think, a more aggressive oversight of how the marketplace is actually functioning because as conservatives we love the free market and want it to solve problems but I really think in the last 30, 40 years we haven’t done the necessary work to make sure the free market is actually functioning. We can’t point to the free market and say, “Solve this,” if it’s not actually working.
Mr. Jekielek: Within the last six months, I believe at least three times, the leadership of multiple big tech companies has been called in front of Congress and asked some very pointed, ostensibly difficult questions. These hearings came and went—it’s not clear to me at all what has come of this.
Ms. Bovard: Nothing. I think these hearings have really taken the place of meaningful action and I think some politicians like to rely on these hearings as a proxy for doing something. They go and they chest-thump and they yell at Mark Zuckerberg and they say, “Look, I yelled at Mark Zuckerberg.” And we’re like, “But nothing’s changed.”
And to the extent that I actually think these CEO’s now build these hearings into their baseline. They know now it’s just the cost of doing business is being hauled before Congress. They know if they show up it’ll actually prevent anything from happening because it will check a box of looking like action without being action.
This may have worked for the first two or three, I think, but increasingly I think people concerned about the big tech threat are catching on to this. That nothing is actually coming out of these hearings.
The other thing I would say is this, I think a lot of the problems that we have with big tech in terms of distorting information flow, market access, all these things, I don’t necessarily know the CEOs are most responsible.
I think that they’re responding to this layer of woke middle management within these companies who are 20s and 30s—very radical in their outlook. They’re the ones making a lot of these decisions that the CEOs then have to go defend.
I think even now our target is misplaced. I don’t even think that the CEOs necessarily can answer for a lot of the things that are happening in their own company because it’s again this strain of middle management that’s actually doing the decision making.
Mr. Jekielek: You mean things like machine learning fairness, for example?
Ms. Bovard: Individual content moderation decisions don’t come from Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey, they come from, again, this strain of middle management. That’s I think really where the focus needs to be, not necessarily on these CEOs, for the 11th time.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay, so this is your recommendation here then, call the middle management in front of Congress?
Ms. Bovard: Call the middle management in front of Congress, or maybe stop doing hearings and start writing laws.
Mr. Jekielek: Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Ms. Bovard: I do think that this is a very big existential threat to American self-government; this big government aligning with big tech, big media, and biggest corporations in America aligning with this ideology as well.
This is a very significant moment I think for America for our policy makers, and I think for conservatives and the right generally, we were unprepared, we didn’t see it coming.
We always trusted that businesses would do the right thing, that they would be compelled by this profit motive, when in reality the old adage of Republicans buy sneakers, too. That’s what Michael Jordan said when they pressured him to be more politically active.
Well, Republicans buy sneakers too, that wouldn’t be in my market interest. That calculus has changed for a lot of these companies. It’s not just Republicans buy sneakers, it’s should Republicans buy sneakers? And that I think is something that is a surprise for us, we didn’t see it coming.
I do think we need to wake up to what’s happening. I think update if necessary, our policies to deal with this threat because limited government has one role and it’s to protect society. It is to protect our traditions and our way of life when they are threatened by external forces or forces within and I would say that this debate rises to those stakes.
Mr. Jekielek: Rachel Bovard, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Ms. Bovard: Thanks for having me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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