The reign of Big Tech is here, and Americans’ First Amendment rights hang by a keystroke. Amassing unimaginable amounts of personal data, giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple — once symbols of American ingenuity and freedom — have become a techno-oligarchy with overwhelming economic and political power. Decades of unchecked data collection have given Big Tech more targeted control over Americans’ daily lives than any company or government in the world. In The Tyranny of Big Tech, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri argues that these mega-corporations — controlled by the robber barons of the modern era — are the gravest threat to American liberty in decades. To reverse course...
Publisher: Regnery Publishing (May 4, 2021) Pages: 200 pages ISBN-10: 1684512395 ISBN-13: 978-1684512393 ASIN: B08TCGQQ64
Josh Hawley, a U.S. Senator from the State of Missouri and the former Missouri Attorney General, has spent his professional life defending the First Amendment and the Constitution. He has litigated in courts across the country, including the US Supreme Court. Josh and his wife, Erin, live in Ozark, MO and have three children, Elijah, Blaise and Abigail.
This is a book the corporate monopolies did not want you to read. Corporate America tried to cancel it, just as they have tried to cancel me and to cancel or control the speech, the communication, even the ideas of millions of Americans— all Americans, in a sense, because what the woke capitalists want, along with their allies in government, is to preserve their power over American politics and society. They have been working to entrench that power for the better part of a century, since the age of the last robber barons, and they are not about to see it challenged now. This book presents a challenge nevertheless: it calls into question the reigning order of corporate liberalism, and it challenges the power of those who benefit from it. And I hope that after reading it, you will want to challenge the corporate liberal order too. I hope you will want to work to revive what is properly the birthright of all Americans, the republic of the common man and woman.
It will take some doing. The framers of our Constitution feared aristocracy—“faction,” James Madison called it, rule by the enterprising few. But that is in fact what we have in America today. The titans of woke capital, and of Big Tech above all, lead the most powerful corporations in history. They have amassed that power with the active aid of government, and now together Big Tech and Big Government seek to extend their influence over every area of American life.
If you doubt this, look only at the furious assault on free speech by Big Tech and its fellow corporatists in the early days of 2021. Following the grisly riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, Big Tech quickly moved to silence conservative voices. The major tech companies de-platformed a bevy of conservatives, including the president of the United States. In a matter of days, Big Tech brought down the independent social media platform Parler: Apple and Google refused to make Parler available in their app stores, and Amazon soon denied Parler access to its cloud computing service. Other major corporations got in on the act. Banks reportedly turned over private information about their customers if they had been in or around Washington, D.C., on January 6.
One of the largest publishers in the nation cancelled this book, citing my “role” in the events of January 6. My sin? Not encouraging the riot, as the publisher certainly knew. I fiercely condemned the violence and the thugs who perpetrated it, just as I had condemned all civil violence and rioting during the months of unrest that unfolded across the country in 2020. No, my sin was to raise an objection to one state during the electoral college certification process, thereby triggering a congressional debate, precisely as permitted by the law and precisely as Democratic members of Congress have done in the electoral counts of 2001, 2005, and 2017. I was, in fact, waiting to participate in that debate on the Senate floor when the riot halted our work and forced the Senate (temporarily) to disband. For this I was branded a “seditionist” and worse. But like many others attacked by the corporations and the Left, my real crime was to have challenged the reign of the woke capitalists.
Since I arrived in the Senate in early 2019, I have relentlessly targeted the power and pretensions of the Big Tech monopolies. The weeks following January 6 demonstrated their frightening, tremendous reach: power over information, over news, over communication and social debate. Even Angela Merkel expressed disquiet at Big Tech’s censorial campaign. But none of this was new. Tech had been amassing power for some time, gathering influence at every opportunity, more with every passing year, and all with the helping hand of government. It was government that fueled the tech oligarchs’ rise with special protections in federal law. It was elected politicians who cheered on Big Tech’s censorship—and called for more—in the closing years of the 2010s and the opening days of 2021.
Big Tech wants to transform America, that’s clear; it wants to remake our society in its image. But in this regard, Big Tech is no different from the earlier oligarchs who made its rise possible. Up until a century ago, most Americans regarded monopoly and corporate concentration with profound distrust. The founders associated it with aristocracy, and they believed aristocracy was a death sentence for republics. Accordingly, they strictly limited corporate power, banned monopolies in all but the rarest cases, and worked to establish an economy of independent producers—where the common person, the common laborer, would have political influence and sway. In fact, earlier Americans believed the republic depended on the strength of the working man and woman. These were the most virtuous of citizens, Thomas Jefferson said. The early Americans celebrated labor and the dignity of ordinary life—hearth and home, work and family. They believed the republic was meant to protect that life and the people who lived it. And for that, the common person needed to have a share in self-government. That’s what liberty was.
That changed—or began to—a century ago, when a group of corporate barons argued that monopoly wasn’t such a bad thing after all. They contended that economic concentration was inevitable, even necessary, for progress. They characterized the economy of independent producers the founding generation had known and labored to uphold as outmoded. They advocated instead a new hierarchy in America, with the capitalists and their professional manager class at the top and mere labor down below. As for liberty, they argued it had little to do with the common man’s share in self-government. Liberty was the private space government and the professional class agreed to leave you in the country they now ran.
The corporate barons of the Gilded Age succeeded in bringing their vision, their corporate liberalism, to America. Big Tech is their natural successor. Like the barons of the Gilded Age, today’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. Our republic has never been more hierarchical, more riven by class, more managed by an elite than it is today. That is corporate liberalism’s legacy. But it need not be our future. This book is an exercise in alternative possibilities, an attempt to recover a different way of thinking about society and politics; it is an attempt, most fundamentally, to recover the meaning of the common man’s republic. It is not too late to make it real again.
THE RETURN OF THE MONOPOLIES
Back in September of 2019, Mark Zuckerberg paid me a visit. He delivered himself to my door on Capitol Hill with a retinue of lobbyists and “governmental affairs” people in train, cameras whirring, reporters shouting, the whole Big Tech baronial circus right there on the second floor of the Russell Senate Office Building. Zuckerberg wanted to talk about Facebook, of course, his gift to the world, and why, on his telling, that mighty tech behemoth was utterly deserving of all the special giveaways and protections it enjoyed from the United States government.
We met in a narrow room across a long, varnished table, he on one side, I on the other, with a handful of staff flanking each of us. Light poured in from a high Norman window. We were arrayed as if negotiating the conclusion of some global conflagration, though this meeting brought no end of hostilities. On the contrary. Zuckerberg had asked to meet approximately two months earlier. By then I had been in the Senate only a matter of months—I was its youngest member—and I had devoted much of that early time to the problem of Big Tech. Within weeks of taking my oath, I proposed new protections for children online and new rights for parents to guard their family’s privacy. I proposed limits to tech’s addictive design features and reforms to confront tech’s political censorship. 2 This followed from my efforts as Missouri attorney general to investigate Facebook (and Google) for antitrust and consumer protection violations. I was the first state attorney general in the nation to launch such a probe. Facebook, Inc. was not amused.
Zuckerberg originally proposed we meet in California, at his headquarters in Silicon Valley. I refused. The point of a meeting like this was to make a point, to put down a marker. My aim was to confront him on the real issue at stake, the power of his monopoly, to force that question to the fore. I was not about to travel to Facebook central command to be part of some corporate photo op. I suggested we meet in Missouri, my home. We finally compromised on my Senate office in Washington. By the time Zuckerberg arrived at my doorstep that afternoon in September, he had been in the capital for a day or more, making the rounds, hosting exclusive dinners—I was always amazed at the number of senators and congressmen who fawned over his invitations—applying a personal touch. Our meeting in my office came toward the end of his charm offensive.
He arrived prepared to reason with me, I could see. His demeanor was polite. His tone was patient, explanatory. He was even ready to make concessions. He acknowledged Facebook had wrongly de-platformed a pro-life group, Live Action—“We made a mistake,” he said—and suggested that the problem might be systemic. “We have a bias problem at Facebook,” he said. He promised action to address political bias. He also nodded to the problem of privacy, said he wanted to protect kids online, and pledged new steps to address the growing issue of online addiction. His agenda, in short, was to make Facebook a model corporate citizen. And all he needed the Senate to do was… nothing. Stay out of it. Let Facebook right its ship. Or if the Senate were inclined to do something, then impose privacy regulations of the kind Facebook was already complying with, conveniently, and be sure to apply them to smaller companies as well, start-ups and so forth, lest competition get out of hand.
Which was about the time I decided to get to the heart of the matter. You talk about competition and privacy and ending unfair censorship, I said. But it’s your monopoly that gives you the power to do all those things. So let’s get serious. Stop buying off competitors. Stop throttling competition. Prove you’re ready to change. End your monopoly: sell Instagram and WhatsApp. Break up the Facebook empire.
Zuckerberg sat silent for a moment following this challenge, blinking. His government-affairs people glowered from their chairs. I would not be getting invited to any of those glittering “private dinners with Mark,” I could see. A moment later, Zuckerberg replied, his patient tone turned to outrage. “I don’t even know what to say to this,” he said. “That’s absurd. That is not going to happen.” Which, of course, was the whole point.
Facebook was not about to give up its monopoly. It was one of the most powerful companies in America since the heyday of the Gilded Age, a century before. It was not about to surrender power, not willingly. Facebook and its fellow Big Tech platforms—Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Apple—wanted to run the American economy, they wanted to run the country , and by that September in 2019, they were increasingly in position to do so. And all I could think, as I sat across that long table from Mark Zuckerberg, modern-day robber baron, was that America had again entered the age of the monopolists. They were back, as powerful and menacing to our republic as they had been a century before, as detrimental to the rule of decent, ordinary people as they had been when Theodore Roosevelt and his trust-busting compatriots famously confronted them. Now we needed Roosevelt’s example again.
I had studied Theodore Roosevelt and written about him some years before. In my battle with the monopolists as attorney general and then in the Senate, I found myself again returning to him, our boldest of presidents, revisiting his policies, his speeches, his call to defend the republic. Yes, the republic. For Roosevelt, the American republic was not merely a form of government, but a way of liberty, a way of life premised on the dignity of the common man and dependent on the common person’s strength and independence. Roosevelt believed that liberty had more to it than the right to be let alone. It was the right to have a say in one’s nation, to help shape the future of the community one called home, to exercise the power and mastery of a citizen.
The problem was, Theodore Roosevelt had not succeeded all those years ago. His renown as a trust-buster notwithstanding, he never managed fully to banish the monopolists. Instead, it was the corporate barons who succeeded in imposing on the nation a complete reconstruction of the American economy, organized around the giant corporation. And they imposed along with it a complete reconstruction of American life. This first generation of corporate barons left a lasting, if dubious, legacy: they made America more hierarchical, with new divisions between management and labor, between a professional class and everyday workers. They made the economy more centralized, consolidating power into a few mega-companies and their owners; they made it more globalized, keyed to international capital and trade. They diminished the voice of the ordinary citizen in society and politics in favor of educated, professionalized elites. In short, they gave America an entirely new political economy, what some historians have called corporate liberalism. 4 A century later, we are still living with it, and with its implications.
The rise of the new monopolists is one of them. Big Tech represents today’s robber barons, who are draining prosperity and power away from the great middle of our society and creating, as they do, a new oligarchy. They do it by siphoning off consumers’ personal data, employing a vast network of digital surveillance that tracks everything from a person’s website visits to his travel to the barometric pressure of his location. And they do it by gobbling up individuals’ creative contributions and work product, relentlessly relabeling information as “public domain” so they can feed it into their vast data machines, run by super-secret codes called algorithms.
The effect is that Big Tech makes more and more money, while the working class narrows and declines, diminished by Big Tech’s Big Data and the “free” services Big Tech uses to collect that data in the first place. But that’s not all. Big Tech’s business model is based principally on data collection and advertising, which means devising ways to manipulate individuals to change their behavior—and then selling that opportunity at manipulation to big corporations. The result? An addiction economy designed to keep us online as much as possible, as long as possible, to sell us more and more stuff and collect more and more information.
Meanwhile, Big Tech increasingly controls the channels of communication in this country, personal and political; it controls the delivery of the news; it controls the avenues of commerce.
Like the corporate barons of a century ago, the tech titans hold themselves out as pioneers of a new economy, in this case an information economy of increased flexibility and choice for workers—supposedly. It hasn’t worked out that way. The Big Tech economy is one presided over by a few titans who use our own data and information to make fortunes while stifling competition and currying favor with government to protect themselves from challenge or change.
Consider the merest sampling of their power. Facebook: Of adults in America who use social media, 99 percent use Facebook. That’s nearly 70 percent of all adults in the country. And that’s just the main Facebook platform. Facebook also owns Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger, creating a user base so big the company can and has single-handedly reshaped the flow of information in the United States. News operations now optimize their stories for distribution on Facebook and go out of business when they don’t—or when Facebook, on a whim, changes its algorithm to deemphasize their content. 6 Politicians spend outrageous sums of money trying to find voters there, more than on television or radio or any other platform.
Google is equally, if not more, powerful. Nine out of every ten searches on the internet in America are performed by Google Search, and when you consider how many Americans now use Google to get their basic information on everything from weather to sports to current events, Google’s ability to direct the content we consume is unprecedented. Google’s browser, Chrome, holds 68 percent of the global desktop market share and 63 percent of the market for mobile browsing. 8 Its phone, Android, represents 85 percent of smartphone market share worldwide. Even Google Maps is huge, controlling 67 percent of the smartphone map market. More than any other company, Google knows exactly where you are, what you are doing, and with whom. And more than any other entity, it has the ability to shape Americans’ first impressions on any subject.
Twitter is a social media power in its own right, boasting hundreds of millions of users and a particular ability to shape breaking news and journalistic opinion.
Then there’s Amazon. By 2020, the company boasted 126 million subscribers to its Amazon Prime subscription service, amounting to more than one-third of the nation. That same year Amazon also controlled at least 40 percent of all online sales in America, giving it power over retail and commerce undreamt of by other, earlier American sales giants, to say nothing of the local retail stores it was in the process of destroying.
As for Apple, its iPhone empire and the Apple App Store attached to it gave that tech giant a share in approximately $500 billion in annual app commerce—along with the ability to influence the design, marketing, and operation of every app offered up for sale on an iPhone.
And what were the tech giants doing with all that influence, all that power? Reducing Americans to supplicants in their own country. Tech robs citizens of personal privacy with relentless surveillance and behavioral manipulation. Tech takes citizens’ control over their property, their personal data. Then there is tech’s war on our social and mental health. An accumulating tranche of research shows that Americans, and especially teenagers, who spend more time online are less happy, less socially engaged, and more vulnerable to addiction and suicide than those who do not. Big Tech’s addiction business model is poisoning Americans’ emotional and psychological well-being.
The tech platforms are destroying Americans’ control over their lives in other ways, by manipulating what news Americans can see and influencing the political decisions they make. By 2019, Facebook was boasting it could change election outcomes. Facebook’s vice president of augmented and virtual reality, Andrew Bosworth—“Boz,” they call him at headquarters—claimed Facebook effectively made Donald Trump president in 2016. “So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected?” Boz asked his fellow Facebookers in a company-wide post in 2019. “I think the answer is yes.” He worried aloud Trump could win again in 2020, and thanks, again, to Facebook. It is “tempting,” he wrote, “to use the tools available to us to change the outcome.” That outcome being a democratic election. In the days leading up to the 2020 presidential vote, Facebook and Twitter seemed determined to try. Both platforms censored the distribution of a New York Post report detailing illicit foreign profits by Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and alleging Joe Biden’s potential involvement. The platforms suppressed the story until after the election was over. The Facebook platform was like the Ring of Power from the Tolkien books, Andrew Bosworth had told his colleagues. It could rule them all—or rule the voters, in this case.
Research backs him up. Psychologist Robert Epstein testified to Congress in June 2019 that, based on his analysis, “if these companies all support the same candidate—and that’s likely, needless to say—they will be able to shift upwards of 15 million votes to that candidate with no one knowing and without leaving a paper trail.”
Given just how much power Big Tech has amassed, and the profits the companies turn from it, perhaps it is not surprising that tech is willing to do nearly anything to keep it. The Federal Trade Commission began investigating Facebook as early as 2011 over allegations that it took and then broadcast personal information customers had designated as “private,” while telling its customers just the opposite. Facebook eventually agreed to pay a hefty fine for these bad acts, only to find itself back on the firing line eight years later for violating the settlement terms and continuing to take its customers’ personal, private data. This time Facebook paid $5 billion for its misdeeds while still refusing to formally admit any wrongdoing.
In 2019, meanwhile, prosecutors for the European Union (EU) slapped Google with an unprecedented, multibillion-dollar fine for ad-related antitrust violations: Google had demanded its ad-buying customers sign contracts pledging not to advertise with or through other search platforms for years, before introducing “relaxed” restrictions on publishers forcing them to offer Google prime screen real estate. That fine followed two others, one in 2017 and another in 2018, alleging Google had used its search engine to steer consumers to its own shopping platform and then separately forced the makers of its Android phones to preinstall Google apps. All this in an effort to forestall competition from rivals. Altogether, the EU demanded $9.3 billion in antitrust fines. Antitrust prosecutors in Europe opened similar probes of Amazon.
Plenty of evidence suggested the same thing was happening in the United States. That is why I launched that antitrust investigation of Google in 2017 as attorney general of Missouri, and a similar investigation of Facebook shortly thereafter. Back then, I couldn’t persuade a single other state attorney general to join me in the fight against the monopolists. By 2019, all fifty states had signed on to an antitrust probe of Google, along with the United States Department of Justice, which finally brought a formal antitrust suit in the fall of 2020.
Big Tech’s power, its hold on information and news and commerce, its business model of addiction and manipulation, is a danger not just to the working-class economy. Not just to our culture. This is a danger to the republic. The dominance of Big Tech threatens self-government by the great American middle, by the common man and woman. These modern-day robber barons threaten to centralize power in the hands of a few, while undermining the independence, economic standing, and cultural influence of everyone else. They are the culmination of that corporate liberalism installed a century ago by the first corporate barons—rule by the elite.
In Theodore Roosevelt’s day, a great many Americans resisted the ambitions of the corporate barons in the name of liberty. They remembered an older tradition associated with the American founders and ascendant in the first century of American life, a tradition that inspired political figures and public movements from Thomas Jefferson to the Populists. This tradition emphasized the power of the common man and woman and their stake in self-government. It was sometimes called republicanism, and the trust-busters of that earlier era invoked it to resist the corporate takeover.
The republican tradition feared corporate power, or at least corporate power on any large scale. It feared the consolidation of wealth and privilege into a few hands. Republicanism favored an economy of independent producers and advocated policies to sustain a broad laboring class as the dominant influence in the nation. Republicanism saw labor as both noble and ennobling. It proclaimed working people as the best of citizens. And this tradition insisted that liberty was directly connected to the common citizen’s ability to participate in his government, to have a say in politics and society. That’s what a republic was: self-government by the common man, in defense of the common, ordinary way of life.
The republican tradition is harder to recall in our day. In the century since Theodore Roosevelt, corporate liberalism has become the reigning public philosophy of both Left and Right, accepted by the establishment of both major parties. The triumph of corporate liberalism has made it more difficult to remember why concentrated power is bad, whether in government or in private corporations. The corporate liberal consensus has made it harder to see why liberty is threatened by the rise of the new monopolists and by the continued decline of an independent working class. It has made it harder to fight back.
All of which is why the fight against Big Tech, these new monopolists, must ultimately reckon with the legacy of the old ones, with corporate liberalism. It must be a fight to recover the better understanding of liberty and the common person on which our republic was founded.
That is what this book is about. In the pages that follow, I set out as clearly as I can the dangers that Big Tech poses to all of us: its model of addiction, its surveillance and data theft, its menace to our children and our children’s psychological well-being, its censorship, and its predatory form of globalism. I argue that we must confront Big Tech and break up its power.
But more than that, I argue that we must succeed where an earlier generation of trust-busters failed. We must challenge the corporate reconstruction of American life. We must challenge corporate liberalism. The tech barons have risen to power on the back of an ideology that blesses bigness—and concentrated power—in the economy and government. This ideology severs the tie between liberty and the power of the people to share in self-government. In fact, the corporate liberal creed deprecates the power of the common person altogether and turns government’s operations and society’s power over to experts and the professional class of educated elites. It has now reigned for a century and more. The time has come to end its hegemony and to reclaim the promise of our republic.
To do that, we must appreciate how we got where we are. To confront Big Tech, we must understand the tech barons’ antecedents and the remodeling of the American regime those earlier robber barons pursued. Only then will we truly be able to understand our present situation and see our way toward change. And so my story begins at the turn of the last century, with the ambitions of the first robber barons, and with Theodore Roosevelt’s failed attempt to stop them. With any luck, his failure may yet turn out to be temporary. We may yet be able to defend the republic.