by Matt Taibbi, TK News:
When Columbia law professor Timothy Wu was appointed by Joe Biden to the National Economic Council a few weeks back, the press hailed it as great news for progressives. The author of The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age is known as a staunch advocate of antitrust enforcement, and Biden’s choice of him, along with the appointment of Lina Khan to the Federal Trade Commission, was widely seen as a signal that the new administration was assembling what Wired called an “antitrust all-star team.”
“Big Tech critic Tim Wu joins Biden administration to work on competition policy,” boomed CNBC, while Marketwatch added, “Anti-Big Tech crusader reportedly poised to join Biden White House.” Chicago law professor Eric Posner’s piece for Project Syndicate was titled “Antitrust is Back in America.” Posner noted Wu’s appointment comes as Senator Amy Klobuchar has introduced regulatory legislation that ostensibly targets companies like Facebook and Google, which a House committee last year concluded have accrued “monopoly power.”
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Wu’s appointment may presage tougher enforcement of tech firms. However, he has other passions that got less ink. Specifically, Wu — who introduced the concept of “net neutrality” and once explained it to Stephen Colbert on a roller coaster — is among the intellectual leaders of a growing movement in Democratic circles to scale back the First Amendment. He wrote an influential September, 2017 article called “Is the First Amendment Obsolete?” that argues traditional speech freedoms need to be rethought in the Internet/Trump era. He outlined the same ideas in a 2018 Aspen Ideas Festival speech:
Listening to Wu, who has not responded to requests for an interview, is confusing. He calls himself a “devotee” of the great Louis Brandeis, speaking with reverence about his ideas and those of other famed judicial speech champions like Learned Hand and Oliver Wendell Holmes. In the Aspen speech above, he went so far as to say about First Amendment protections that “these old opinions are so great, it’s like watching The Godfather, you can’t imagine anything could be better.”
If you hear a “but…” coming in his rhetoric, you guessed right. He does imagine something better. The Cliff’s Notes version of Wu’s thesis:
— The framers wrote the Bill of Rights in an atmosphere where speech was expensive and rare. The Internet made speech cheap, and human attention rare. Speech-hostile societies like Russia and China have already shown how to capitalize on this “cheap speech” era, eschewing censorship and bans in favor of “flooding” the Internet with pro-government propaganda.
— As a result, those who place faith in the First Amendment to solve speech dilemmas should “admit defeat” and imagine new solutions for repelling foreign propaganda, fake news, and other problems. “In some cases,” Wu writes, “this could mean that the First Amendment must broaden its own reach to encompass new techniques of speech control.” What might that look like? He writes, without irony: “I think the elected branches should be allowed, within reasonable limits, to try returning the country to the kind of media environment that prevailed in the 1950s.”
— More ominously, Wu suggests that in modern times, the government may be more of a bystander to a problem in which private platforms play the largest roles. Therefore, a potential solution (emphasis mine) “boils down to asking whether these platforms should adopt (or be forced to adopt) norms and policies traditionally associated with twentieth-century journalism.”
That last line is what should make speech advocates worry.
Wu’s appointment may not matter a lot to those concerned about constitutional freedoms because, as Stanford professor Nate Persily puts it, the current Supreme Court would be very hostile to any attempt to water down the First Amendment. “If there’s one thing that’s consistent about the Roberts court,” says Persily, “it’s very strong speech protections.”
However, there’s a paradox embedded in this new Democratic mainstream thinking about speech in the Internet era. As one activist put it to me last week, the new breed of Democratic-leaning thinkers like Wu wants to be anti-corporate and authoritarian at the same time. Their problem, however, is that in order to effect change through authoritative action, they need to enlist the aid and cooperation of corporate power.
This paradox casts even the “antitrust all-star team” narrative about people like Wu and Khan in a different light. What may begin as a sincere desire by the Biden administration (or, at least, by figures like Wu, who by all accounts is a real antitrust advocate) to break up tech monopolies, may end in negotiation and partnership.
While the liberal tradition of the party tilts toward antitrust action, the new, more authoritarian form of progressivism currently gaining traction is tempted by the power these companies wield, and instead of breaking these firms up, may be more likely to seek to appropriate their influence.
You can see this mentality in the repeated exchanges between Congress and Silicon Valley executives. An example is the celebrated October 23, 2019 questioning of Mark Zuckerberg by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a House Financial Services Committee hearing. The congresswoman, as staunch a believer in the new approach to speech as there is in modern Democratic Party politics, repeatedly asks Zuckerberg questions like, “So, you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies?” and “Why you label the Daily Caller, a publication well-documented with ties to white supremacists, as an official fact-checker for Facebook?”