An Unconvincing Attack on Silicon Valley from the Left

Originally Published in National Review

If Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s observation that “power in America today is control of the means of communication” still rings true, then a few Internet platforms possess unprecedented influence over our political affairs. Jonathan Taplin’s new book, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, views this state of affairs as a critical threat to American democracy. But while he identifies a number of legitimate concerns related to Big Tech’s influence on culture and politics, Taplin’s ideological lens distorts the book’s insights.

Taplin, a tech entrepreneur with a background in the music business, initially planned on detailing a “culture war” waged by “a few libertarian Internet billionaires — the people who brought you Google, Amazon, and Facebook” against artists, journalists, authors, and musicians. As he delved into his subjects, he became even more concerned with their political power.

Silicon Valley’s well-known Democratic bent is the most obvious obstacle to the book’s narrative. Taplin squares this circle by playing six degrees of separation with tech investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel, while mischaracterizing Thiel’s views. Despite naming Facebook, Google, and Amazon in the title, he gives Thiel — a board member and early investor in Facebook, but otherwise not associated with these companies — far more attention than their founders and executives: Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, et al.

Taplin acknowledges Silicon Valley’s Democratic bent only in passing. He briefly mentions that Google CEO Eric Schmidt advised Hillary Clinton, but argues that Page’s 2016 attendance, along with Elon Musk and Sean Parker, at a “secret Republican meeting” hosted by the American Enterprise Institute balanced out Schmidt’s activities. He fails to mention that this meeting’s purpose was to prevent Donald Trump from winning the GOP nomination, or that Musk and Parker went on to contribute to Hillary Clinton. But while Musk and Parker have supported a mix of Republican and Democratic politicians over the years, their political activities hardly compare to those of liberal super-donors such as Schmidt.

Later, he quotes Grover Norquist’s prediction that Silicon Valley will trend Republican with gay marriage off the table. Trump explicitly stated that gay marriage was a settled issue, and Thiel said he was “proud to be gay” at the Republican National Convention. Trump faced an even more monolithic Silicon Valley opposition than past Republican candidates anyway. True, Trump was not the average Republican, and many conservatives and libertarians opposed him. But, as the Washington Post has noted, “no household Silicon Valley names publicly donated to the small government torchbearers, Rand Paul or Ted Cruz” during the primaries.

Taplin describes Bezos and Page as libertarians, and suggests that Page and Zuckerberg secretly believe there is no “legitimate public political authority.” Aside from a few past quotes critical of government regulation, he provides little evidence for this assertion. Instead, he has to leave Silicon Valley to find actual libertarians: The politics of the Kansas-based Koch brothers are described in more detail than those of any figure in the book besides Thiel. The Kochs’ sole connection to the tech world is that Google and Facebook gave a few five-figure donations to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which Koch-backed groups also funded. In contrast, Google has contributed $4 million to the ACLU and similar groups to fight Trump’s immigration policies since his inauguration and has given tens of millions of dollars to support Black Lives Matter.

It is true that Silicon Valley executives don’t hold conventional left-wing economic views. According to polls, the majority of big-tech titans support free trade, are skeptical of labor unions, and are not very concerned about income inequality. Yet those same executives also strongly support environmental regulations and Obamacare. If Taplin believed anyone who opposes unionizing Uber drivers while supporting gay marriage is a libertarian, this would only be semantic issue. But he defines libertarianism as ideological opposition to all government taxes and regulations, describing the works of Ludwig von Mises and even anarcho-capitalists such as Murray Rothbard and Hans Herman Hoppe.

Above all, though, Taplin blames the philosophy of Ayn Rand — and Thiel, supposedly its chief Silicon Valley evangelist — for moving the tech industry toward libertarianism. He describes Thiel as an “Ayn Rand acolyte” with a “Randian ethical framework,” who views the novelist as his “icon” and “philosophical hero.” By embracing Rand’s division of society into heroic businessmen (“makers”) and ungrateful moochers (“takers”), Thiel positions himself and other successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as embodying her heroic ideal, according to Taplin. While fetishizing the businessman, he argues, these entrepreneurs have little appreciation for the creative class and even less for the common man. This leads to their rejection of democracy, support of economic monopolies, and opposition to “regulation, paying taxes, or guarding copyright.” Building from a “basic Randian concept,” Taplin says, Thiel set up a four-pronged approach to gaining a market monopoly: proprietary technology, network effects, economies of scale, and branding.

Many PayPal alumni went on to start other successful tech companies, including LinkedIn, Yelp, and YouTube. Where Taplin errs is in attributing Thiel’s and Rand’s views to these men. Thus, YouTube founder Chad Hurley, who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats and not a dime to Republicans, is “schooled in Peter Thiel’s philosophy,” which presumably influenced his nonchalant attitude toward intellectual property.

If Thiel had such an oversized ideological influence on Silicon Valley, he would not have faced universal opposition when he endorsed Trump. Some, such as Mark Zuckerberg, clarified that they respected his right to hold his own opinions, but many others demanded that he be ostracized and boycotted. An anonymous poll of tech CEOs found that a third claimed they would not do business with him for supporting Trump. While Thiel survived this backlash, other right-wing entrepreneurs such as now-former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich have been felled by similar efforts.

Even if Thiel had the influence on big tech that Taplin claims, it would still be the case that the book misrepresents his views. Rather than aspiring to be a Randian superhero, Thiel calls Rand only a “half-great writer” because “her heroes were fake.” While Taplin argues that Rand inspired Thiel’s (and by extension Silicon Valley’s) investment strategy, Thiel himself has said that, “If I had been libertarian in the most narrow, Ayn Rand-type way, I would never have invested in Facebook.” Beyond criticizing Randianism, Thiel has expressed nostalgia for ambitious government programs aimed at solving big problems and does not oppose all antitrust enforcement. He embraces only “creative monopolies,” which gain market power by creating “something that others cannot.” He argues that the ability to capture monopoly profits spurs innovation. This view is fully consistent with pre-Robert Bork antitrust jurisprudence, which Taplin is nostalgic for. In 1966, the Supreme Court held that monopolization “as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or historic accident” was not illegal. Thiel further positively describes some types of intellectual property — which Taplin claims Thiel does not believe in — as a creative monopoly.

With this skewed view of Silicon Valley’s ideological leanings as his starting point, Taplin tries to show that tech-industry leaders are undermining the very foundations of American democracy.

Beyond funding ALEC, Taplin believes these companies undermine democracy through regulatory capture, which leads to particularly weak antitrust enforcement and protections for intellectual property. He notes the revolving door between Google’s lobbyists and lawyers and its regulators at the FTC and Department of Justice. But though this is a problem, it’s not new or unique to the tech industry, and regulatory capture does not inevitably lead to deregulation. (For example, Google and Facebook both advocate net neutrality.)

Taplin is on more solid ground when he argues that these companies’ economic dominance gives them enormous political power through their control of the distribution of news and commentary. As he notes, Teddy Roosevelt busted trusts in part because of their “corruption in our political affairs,” yet this is not a factor in present-day antitrust enforcement.

Taplin points to psychologist Robert Epstein’s study showing that Google could manipulate its search results to sway between 20 percent and 80 percent of undecided voters. Additionally, because Facebook is becoming the primary intermediary for news, he argues that if it can “filter what I see, then the civic square will no longer exist.” He further shows that, at times, over 60 percent of online book sales have gone through Amazon, which means that the retailer’s decision not to carry any one book can have a profound effect on that book’s success.

These are not mere hypotheticals. Amazon recently stopped selling Holocaust-denial literature, and while few would defend the substance of such work, the retailer’s decision created a precedent of banning writings because of their viewpoint. At least some Facebook contractors have altered the social-media platform’s newsfeed to disfavor conservative posts, and there is significant (though far from conclusiveevidence that Google altered its algorithm to help Hillary Clinton. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and all major social-media platforms now prohibit ill-defined “hate” speech. Facebook has recently begun trying to crack down on “fake news.”

Despite the book’s ostensible purpose of criticizing these companies’ influence on politics, Taplin complains that they did not do enough to prevent Donald Trump’s victory. He writes that Facebook and Twitter were “equally responsible” for Trump’s victory, because Twitter was “allowing” Trump to “strike at his perceived enemies” and Trump’s supporters could distribute their messages on Facebook without (quoting UC Berkeley journalism professor Ed Wasserman) “the usual kinds of quality checks.” He also attacks social media for becoming home to racism and misogyny, which he argues also fueled Trump’s rise. He even criticizes Zuckerberg’s claim that “we do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves” and demands that Facebook take more responsibility to weed out “fake news.” He doesn’t seem to recognize that to take on such responsibility would mean assuming increased control over American political discourse.

Progressives such as Taplin have good reason to oppose Big Tech’s agenda. Many Republicans — including President Trump, who has railed about how big media mergers “destroy democracy” — share the same underlying concerns. Had he not gotten stuck on clichéd left-wing bugaboos such as “fake news” and the Koch brothers, this book could have been perceptive and relevant.

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