I’ll start with a personal experience and then try to expand into Republicans and big tech.
In the spring of 2016, Facebook came under pressure, stemming from leaks by its workers, over charges of systemic political bias. I was not especially interested: a Silicon Valley company that employs thousands of young people to make decisions that are often ideological will tilt left, and conservatives must factor that in, as they’re used to doing.
My concerns about Facebook had to do with its apparently monopolistic nature, slippery ethics and algorithmic threats to serious journalism.
Soon after, I received an email from Mark Zuckerberg’s office inviting me and other “conservative activists” to attend a meeting with him to discuss the bias charges in an off-the-record conversation. I responded that I was not an activist but a columnist, for the Journal, and would be happy to attend in that capacity and on the record. That didn’t go over too well with Mr. Zuckerberg’s office! I was swiftly told that wouldn’t do.
What I most remember is that they didn’t mention where his office is. There was an air of being summoned by the prince. You know where the prince lives. In the castle. Who doesn’t know exactly where Facebook is?
In February 2018 Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein of Wired wrote a deeply reported piece that mentioned the 2016 meeting. It was called so that the company could “make a show of apologizing for its sins.” A Facebook employee who helped plan it said part of its goal—they are clever at Facebook and knew their mark!—was to get the conservatives fighting with each other. “They made sure to have libertarians who wouldn’t want to regulate the platform and partisans who would.” Another goal was to leave attendees “bored to death” by a technical presentation after Mr. Zuckerberg spoke.
Predictably, the conservatives “failed to unify in a way that was either threatening or coherent.” Many used the time “to try to figure out how they could get more followers for their own pages.”
After the meeting, attendees gushed, calling Mr. Zuckerberg and his staffers humble and open. Glenn Beck praised the CEO’s “earnest desire to ‘connect the world.’”
Never were pawns so happily used.
I forgot about it until last summer, when Mr. Zuckerberg’s office wrote again. His problems were mounting. I was invited now, with an unspecified group of others, to “an off the record discussion over dinner at his home in Palo Alto.” They used that greasy greaseball language Silicon Valley uses: Mr. Zuckerberg is “focused on protecting” users and thinking about “the future and how best to serve the Facebook community.”
I ignored the invitation. They pressed. Their last note reached me at an irritated moment, so I wrote back a rocket, reminding him of the previous meeting and how it had been revealed to be a mischievous and highly political enacting of faux remorse. I suggested that though it was an honor to be asked to cross a continent for the privilege of giving him my time, thought and advice, I would not. I added that I was sorry to say he strikes me in his public, and now semiprivate, presentations as an imperious twerp.
For a second I actually hesitated: The imperious twerp runs the algorithms, controls the traffic, has all the dark powers! But I am an American, and one with her Irish up, so I hit send.
And I’m still here, at least at the moment, so I guess that’s OK.
Facebook’s famous sins and failings include the abuse of private data, selling space to Russian propagandists in the 2016 presidential campaign, starving journalism of ad revenues, monopolistically acquiring or doing in possible competitors, political mischief, and turning users into the unknowing product. I once wrote the signal fact of Mr. Zuckerberg’s career is that he is supremely gifted in one area—monetizing technical ingenuity by marrying it to a canny sense of human weakness.
None of this is news. We just can’t manage to do anything about it.
Now there are moves to push back. The House Judiciary Committee will hold antitrust investigations into big tech. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is warning that “unwarranted concentrated economic power in the hands of a few is dangerous to democracy.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren has made a splash with her pushback on big tech; Sen. Amy Klobuchar included it in her presidential announcement speech.
The New York Times this week had a breakthrough report, from Cecilia Kang and Kenneth Vogel, on how the tech giants are fighting back. They are “amassing an army of lobbyists.” Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple spent a combined $55 million in lobbying last year, about double what they spent in 2016. They “have intensified their efforts to lure lobbyists with strong connections to the White House, the regulatory agencies, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress.” Facebook hired Mrs. Pelosi’s former chief of staff. The speaker herself has received major campaign money from employees and political-action committees of all the tech giants. Google pays lobbyists who worked on the Republican staff of House Judiciary.
They’ve got it wired, haven’t they?
But the mood in America is anti-big-tech. Everyone knows they’re too powerful, too arrogant, loom too large in public life.
And something else: This whole new world of new technology was born in the 1970s and ’80s. We still think it’s new and we’re figuring it out, but we’re almost half a century into it and we can see what works and what doesn’t, what’s had good effects and hasn’t. It is time to move.
We’re Americans and we love money and success and the hallowed story of the kid in the garage who invents the beautiful product that changes the world.
And Republican officials—they can’t help it, they don’t just rightly love business; they love big business, they love titans. It’s almost romantic: Look what people can do in America! He started it in his dorm room! And now we’re at lunch!
It’s all too human, and of course greedy: Maybe these guys will start giving me money! I mean Pelosi-size money!
Here’s what they should be thinking: Break them up. Break them in two, in three; regulate them. Declare them to be what they’ve so successfully become: once a pleasure, now a utility.
It all depends on Congress, which has been too stupid to move in the past and is too stupid to move competently now. That’s what’s slowed those of us who want reform, knowing how badly they’d do it.
Yet now I find myself thinking: I don’t care. Do it incompetently, but do something.
Why are Republicans so slow to lead? The Times quoted Republican Sen. Josh Hawley as saying “the dominance of big tech” is a “big problem.” They “may be more socially powerful than the trusts of the Roosevelt era, and yet they still operate like a black box.”
But I read about lobbyists coming at Republican congressional leaders and I think, it’s going to be like Mr. Zuckerberg’s meeting with the conservatives in 2016. A tech god will give them some attention, some respect, and they’ll fold like a cheap suit.
If they are as stupid and unserious as their critics take them to be, they will go to the meeting and be used.
They should say no and hit send.