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Can Josh Hawley Break the Internet?

REVIEW: ‘The Tyranny of Big Tech’

• May 16, 2021 4:58 am

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The Tyranny of Big Tech, Senator Josh Hawley’s excoriation of corporate power, created a media firestorm before it even came out. The original publisher, Simon & Schuster, dropped the book amid the January 6 riots and the Missouri Republican’s insistence on contesting the 2020 election results. Now snatched up by conservative publisher Regnery, it’s selling well—the latest example of cancel culture’s Streisand effect.

In form and structure, Tyranny mirrors a recent book on the same topic by Hawley’s Antitrust Committee colleague and chairwoman, Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar. Antitrust (reviewed in these pages), also tried to frame vigorous antitrust as recovering an American tradition shared by Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Teddy Roosevelt, among others.

The two books also share a few political prescriptions. Both senators critique the "Chicago School" of antitrust theory, which takes a friendly view of most mergers. Both, in their own ways, emphasize the dangers of corporate size in itself, even before they address specific harms caused by large companies.

But they differ in whom exactly they want to target. While Klobuchar is a critic of corporate power generally, Hawley knows exactly whom he wants to go after: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google (Twitter, though much smaller, comes in for some heat as well). The book’s greatest strength is also its weakness: Hawley genuinely thinks these companies cause more harm than good and doesn’t shy away from saying so. Tyranny doesn’t vacillate, but it also comes off at times as shortsighted, unwilling to flesh out an approach to big tech companies that might also implicate other nefarious corporate actors.

Hawley’s "corporate barons" are the inheritors of the Gilded Age robber barons, except these corporate barons don’t even create real physical things. "[T]oday’s tech oligarchs wield immense power, thanks to a combination of government aid and monopoly; like the barons, they are utterly convinced of their own righteousness and their right to govern America."

The book’s main targets are the attention economy these oligarchs created and their censorious behavior. In Hawley’s reading of the big tech economic model, users are "sources of information to be mined" for as long as possible. As a result of this shift, we increasingly see a new hierarchy of jobs, with the digital world of content creation reigning over the real-world labors of the "Jeffersonian middle class." Hawley suggests that this world of "modern horrors" has been foisted on American citizens, who otherwise wouldn’t choose constant invasions of their privacy.

For Hawley, this paradigm is fundamentally dangerous to a republican mode of governance, both because it turns citizens into consumptive drones and because it allows tech to monopolize the flow of information. Jon Askonas points out that Hawley’s targets are disseminators of information, rather than companies like Microsoft, which have tremendous market power in other domains. Hawley is less concerned with unaccountable corporations generally, and more concerned with "corporate liberalism," specifically the ideological valence of the platforms that censor speech.

It’s a book short on trade-offs. Hawley correctly brings up the shocking censorship of political dissents Facebook engages in, but many observers believe his proposed solution (Section 230 reform) would mean a massive spike in just this kind of censorship. The antitrust arguments in Tyranny are also rather confusing to follow, as Hawley both criticizes the dangers of the attention economy and complains that monopolies make it harder for competitors to thrive in the same morally questionable businesses.

The policy prescriptions he outlines vary from reasonable to misguided. Hawley believes our current standard for "market power" in antitrust law is too limited: He’s appalled that the law doesn’t look closer at Facebook’s 83 percent share of consumers’ time spent on social media, for instance. At other points, he lambasts platform features like autoplay or sorting by relevance, which plenty of social media users find valuable.

Perhaps Hawley’s most aggressive proposal is to eliminate Section 230 protections for any company that engages in behavioral advertising (that is, all of them). According to Hawley, "behavioral ads drive many of tech platforms’ worst pathologies—the surveillance, the addiction race, the data pilfering." The move would break big tech platforms completely, and Hawley suggests that outcome wouldn’t be so bad.

In the most intriguing passages, Hawley suggests a kind of alternate history for tech, in which different legal principles at the dawn of the internet age could have created a decentralized internet, free of coercion or censorship. But this slim volume doesn’t discuss the flowering of decentralized social media or internet applications happening now—one wonders what the senator has to say about Discord, Bluesky, or cryptocurrency.

Tyranny lays out a program that would cut off big tech companies at the knees. But whether Americans care enough about targeted advertising, censorship, and the perils of the attention economy to endorse this program is another question. If Hawley is right, and we have been turned from citizens to consumers and inputs into the big data machine, it may be too late for his suite of solutions.

The Tyranny of Big Tech
by Josh Hawley
Regnery, 200 pp., $29.99