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Fighting Big Tech Makes for Some Uncomfortable Bedfellows


It was not a given that Steve Hilton, the conservative Fox News host, and Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor who worked in the Obama White House, would get along.

But when they met by chance at a cocktail party in Washington last year, they quickly landed on one surprisingly strong point of agreement: It was time to break up Big Tech.

“We thought the same way,” Mr. Hilton said.

Mr. Wu, who is also a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, agreed. “There’s unusual constituencies arising,” he said. He later went on Mr. Hilton’s show, “The Next Revolution,” for a congenial interview.

The antitrust movement has been revived by a bipartisan loathing of Big Tech that extends beyond lawmakers to the furthest firmaments of the right and the left.

On one side is the progressive left, whose members have been appalled by Facebook’s handling of pro-Trump Russian disinformation campaigns and Silicon Valley’s consolidated power. On the other side is the Trumpist right, whose members see the power of social media companies to ban content as censorship and worry that the arteries of communication are controlled by young liberals.

The common cause has made for some strange new bedfellows. The left and the right now often have similar anti-tech talking points on cable news and at congressional hearings. Conservatives are showing up at largely liberal conferences, while liberals are going on conservative TV shows.

On Tuesday, that alignment will be evident at an antitrust hearing on Capitol Hill featuring executives from Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, as well as policy experts like Mr. Wu. The hearing, held by the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, will examine “the impact of market power of online platforms on innovation and entrepreneurship.”

“To the bewilderment of many observers, the ascendant pressures for antitrust reforms are flowing from both wings of the political spectrum,” Daniel A. Crane, a law professor at the University of Michigan, wrote last year in a paper called “Antitrust’s Unconventional Politics.”

Now those who have found mutual understanding need to figure out if they can actually get along.

It is not easy. Often, it is awkward.

“I think we should be skeptical,” said Sabeel Rahman, the president of the progressive think tank Demos and an associate law professor at Brooklyn Law School. “What are the coalitions that we ought to embrace? Who’s the we?”

Mr. Rahman said that he was wary of these new conservative allies and that progressives in the movement needed to be cautious. Yes, they both want to take power out of the hands of large tech companies — but then the two sides have to agree on whose hands that power falls into.

“How do we operationalize this? Who’s doing the moderating? Are these new allies coming in good faith?” Mr. Rahman asked. “The devil’s in the details.”

The detail here is who exactly should be in charge of a company like Facebook, if it is not Mark Zuckerberg. The two sides may both want third-party ombudsmen of some sort, but agreement seems to fall apart beyond that.

“Most people getting involved haven’t really gamed out what this means,” said Katy Glenn Bass, the research director at the Knight First Amendment Institute, an advocacy group for free speech.

Regulation of online speech is not exclusively an antitrust concern, but today these threads are becoming interwoven. Critics argue that big tech companies need to be broken up or regulated because they are suppressing speech.

Ms. Bass, who is organizing a Knight Institute symposium in October on tech giants, monopoly power and public discourse, said she worried that popular enthusiasm for aggressive regulation of speech on the platforms could get out of hand. She worries that now arguments for moderating speech are coming from groups that once stood against government intervention.

“The idea that these platforms should be pretty tightly regulated on what speech they can host is not a traditional conservative argument,” Ms. Bass said. “This has all been a real whiplash.”

A case in point: On Thursday, The Washington Post published an essay by Charlie Kirk, the president of Turning Point USA, a group for young conservatives, proposing that digital platforms be regulated the way publishers are.

“Fighting back against private companies with governmental action is a politically and ideologically fraught idea for those of us on the right,” he wrote. But he went on to add, “There is now ample reason to believe the market’s normal corrective powers are being blocked by anti-competitive forces.”

Traditional conservatives said they were feeling the whiplash. James Pethokoukis, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a pro-market think tank, was at a party this spring that included Republican donors in Washington when the conversation took a turn toward big tech companies.

“They were talking about breaking them up, turning them into utilities,” Mr. Pethokoukis said. “It’s a breathtaking change from even a year ago.”

He was shocked. To him these companies were American jewels and some of the best bulwarks against rising power abroad. He has since been writing against the movement with pieces like “The Astonishingly Weak Antitrust Case Against Facebook, Google, and Amazon.”

Tech bias has been a longtime concern for the right, and Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, frequently mentioned it. Little came of it.

Now the movement is finding more mainstream allies. Mr. Kirk and others who have complained of an anti-conservative bias by Facebook, Google and Twitter attended a social media summit at the White House on Thursday. At the event, Mr. Trump accused the companies of exhibiting “terrible bias” and said he was calling representatives from all of them to the White House over the next month.

On Friday, Mr. Trump took the tech companies to task again, calling them “crooked” and
”dishonest” and adding that “something is going to be done.”

“In my circles right now,” Mr. Pethokoukis said, “if you say, ‘I don’t think we’re seeing systemic bias against conservatives,’ it’s like they wonder about your sanity.”

Matt Stoller, a former Democratic congressional staff member who is now at the antimonopoly think tank Open Markets Institute, which leans liberal, said he noticed the same thing.

“The white supremacists liked to appropriate this language around antimonopoly and free speech,” said Mr. Stoller, who has written a book on the antimonopoly movement, “Goliath.” “But now there are real networks on the right that are not white supremacist networks, and the people in them are genuinely concerned about the power of Big Tech.”

He said he was having to reassess his relationships with conservatives.

“I always knew we were aiming at different things,” he said. “Now, we have some of the same goals.”

And so they are building wary coalitions. Mr. Wu said he was working on a movement of state attorneys general to take the antitrust fight to individual courtrooms across the country. The most eager allies are Republicans, he said.

Mr. Hilton, a former British political adviser, built his Fox News show in 2017 around what he predicted would be an anti-elitist populism movement. The 2016 presidential election was just the start, he figured. But the rallying cries fizzled out, and party lines remained unchanged.

Today, he sees a bright spot: the shared antipathy for big tech companies.

“Three years on, it looks like the only remnant of that is this antitrust issue and, if we’re really specific about it, anti-Big Tech,” Mr. Hilton said.

On Mr. Hilton’s show, Mr. Wu argued for breaking up Facebook by forcing its two other popular apps — Instagram and WhatsApp — to be spun off.

But Mr. Wu worried about being seen as having a friendly chat on Fox News and felt uncomfortable sharing his appearance on the show with his mostly liberal followers.

“I didn’t publicize it a great deal,” he said. “I took a selfie. But then I decided not to broadcast it.”

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