The world's most valuable public companies are five American technology firms: Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, and Facebook. And one reason Big Tech is so big is that it's so important in our daily lives. Research suggests consumers would have to be paid hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to give up search or social media. And a new Federal Reserve study finds internet services have increased consumer welfare by nearly $2,000 a year annually since 2004.
So it's not surprising, then, that such companies are attracting new government scrutiny on issues such as data privacy, innovation, electoral integrity, and national security. New regulations might be required. Maybe future mergers might be prohibited or past ones unwound. These are serious policy considerations deserving serious analysis.
But that is not what President Trump and the anti-Big Tech Republicans are offering. Here is the president Wednesday on Fox Business, talking about America's tech titans: "I'll tell you what, they should be sued because what's happening with the bias — and now you see it with that executive yesterday from Google. The hatred for the Republicans ... These people are all Democrats, it's totally biased toward Democrats."
So the "bias" charge. Again. And expect Trump to repeat the tired accusation now that Twitter says it will label politician tweets, including those from Trump, that violate its rules but aren't taken down due to public interest consideration. But as is typical with these accusations, the more you look, the less you find. What Trump was specifically referring to apparently was a hidden-camera video recording from the right-wing Project Veritas. In it, Jen Gennai, Google's head of responsible innovation, argues that Washington shouldn't break up Google "because all these smaller companies who don't have the same resources that we do will be charged with preventing the next Trump situation, it's like a small company cannot do that."
Now what Project Veritas founder James O'Keefe seemingly wants viewers to think is that Gennai is referring to secret Google efforts to prevent Trump's re-election, maybe by messing with search results — as Trump has previously charged the company with doing. Far more likely is that Gennai was referring to company efforts to prevent foreign election interference. She offered that explanation in a Medium blog post, and as The Verge's Russell Brandom points out, it syncs with the anti-breakup arguments Big Tech have been making publicly about how their vast resources are necessary to combat these state-led attacks.
The other big Project Veritas "gotcha" was noting that despite the immense popularity of the search term "Hillary Clinton's emails," it returns no autocomplete results such as "scandal." Anti-GOP bias in action ... except when you type in "Donald Trump sex," there is nothing about his scandals, either. The autocomplete is "and the city," probably based on his cameo in the Sex and the City television series.
Yet the glaring weakness of the Project Veritas story — nor that of its bias exposé against Pinterest, of all places — has stopped Republicans from glomming on. It's not just Trump. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in a hearing questioned a Google executive about the report, and said he "would recommend people interested in political bias at Google watch the entire report and judge for yourself."
Nor do deeper dives really turn up much evidence of bias. The Economist magazine recently compared various news sites' share of Google search results to a statistical prediction based on each outlet's overall popularity on social media, what they cover, and their accuracy ratings. The results suggest "that Google's main form of favoritism is to boost viral articles. The most incendiary stories about Mr. Trump come from leftist sources." Another study that purported to find an anti-conservative bias in Twitter account suspensions seems to have actually discovered a bias against white supremacists, who also happen to support Trump. Hopefully this isn't the sort of thing Trump means when he complains that Twitter is making it "very much harder for me to get out the message."
Of course Trump can't simply order the Justice Department or Federal Trade Commission to attack Big Tech, although both have recently signaled that they are taking a harder look at Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. But Trump's comments probably give political momentum to the GOP's terribly ill-considered efforts to limit or remove the legal immunity that protects internet companies from being sued over content that users post. Again, because of non-existent bias — and an obvious misreading of the law.
So what's going on here? Appealing to the GOP base through grievance politics? Making social media think twice before kicking off pro-Trump voices no matter how vile their speech? Indirectly pressuring Silicon Valley to give more money to Republicans? Giving Trump a "rigged election" excuse if he loses in 2020? Certainly it appears that none of this has much to do with making the internet an even more beneficial force in American life.