By being so nakedly partisan, Big Tech companies are making it harder for free marketeers to defend them

We at the Center don’t always agree with each other. One area where you will find differing opinions is on the regulation of tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

A couple of years ago, following an in-house conversation about this issue, I wrote:

Free markets can be hard. They might not produce outcomes you personally like. This is why we have such extensive literature on economic inequalitypublic goods, or merit goods, among other alleged market failings.

Government provision or regulation is usually the proposed solution to these market failings. But advocates for free markets will point out that this cure is, in many cases, worse than the disease. Economics undergraduates will hear much in their classes about “market failure,” but the problem of “government failure” is at least as widespread.

However, even for free-market advocates, it can be a tough principle to cling to when the market isn’t doing what they would like. For some, it is too tough. When faced with a market outcome they disapprove of, some embrace the very government intervention they usually oppose.

A case in point is the Internet, specifically websites such as Twitter, Google, and Facebook. Many conservatives believe these companies are politically biased and are “censoring” conservative content in various ways or promoting their opponents. They propose increased government regulation of these companies. They are said to be “public utilities” that require the hand of government a little heavier on their shoulder than other businesses.

Personally, I can readily believe these websites are biased and do discriminate against certain political views. But what should the government do about that? Should it do anything?

Noting that government regulation often makes worse the very problems it is ostensibly intended to solve and that these tech companies are not ‘monopolies’, I argued for a laissez-faire approach to their regulation. I think I would still argue that case, but Twitter’s recent actions make that very much harder.

I know almost nothing about the Hunter Biden laptop story. But I do know that Facebook saying it would “limit distribution” of the New York Post‘s story and Twitter blocking it from being shared make it very much harder for those of us who argue for a laissez-faire approach to their regulation.

We know that companies like Facebook and Twitter are politically partisan and that this partisanship manifests itself in trying to help one party over others. To me, as private businesses they are entitled to do so, just as they don’t have to bake that cake.

This is not an uncommon view. Forbes reported in July:

Americans who distrust big tech don’t necessarily support government action: 69.8% of respondents to a July poll by the Center for Growth and Opportunity/YouGov said they “somewhat” or “completely agree” that tech companies are too big, but only 44.4% agree the government should break them up.

Knight Foundation/Gallup poll conducted in December and released in March found 50% support government intervention to break up tech companies, while 49% oppose, and the Pew survey found only 47% support more government tech regulation—down from 51% in 2018.

But those numbers for regulation are pretty finely balanced. People seem to accept as inevitable some degree of bias from big tech companies. But if the likes of Facebook and Twitter are seen to be too nakedly partisan – as they undoubtedly have been in the case of Hunter Biden’s laptop – those numbers might start to shift in a direction they don’t like.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.