Silicon Valley and Washington Must Work Together to Defend a Free Internet

Instead of fundamentally changing, tech firms are compromising their values.

After a barrage of scandals—election meddling, the spread of misinformation, and the implementation of discriminatory algorithms—Silicon Valley is quickly losing the public’s trust. Washington, in turn, has responded with aggression. The House Judiciary Committee has announced a “top-to-bottom” antitrust investigation of Big Tech firms including Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon—making a crackdown on America’s technological innovators one of the few points of bipartisan consensus. But this couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Weakening Free Internet

As China seeks to advance an autocratic and censored view of the internet throughout the globe, America’s vision for an open internet is under attack. The global expansion of China’s rapidly-growing tech industry, which complies with principles laid out by the Communist Party, may continue to close markets for American firms abroad, as it has in China. This presents a threat not only to the global dominance of American tech but also to the free internet itself. For online freedom to survive, Washington and Silicon Valley need to work together.

Both Washington and Silicon Valley are to blame for the current discord and weakened global presence of a free internet. In hearing after hearing, Congress has displayed technical illiteracy, which only justifies tech leaders’ wariness of the government’s ability to regulate. Policymakers must move away from hampering the tech industry. The blunt instrument of antitrust will not resolve online issues.At the same time, Silicon Valley’s libertarian approach—a combination of unbridled techno-optimism and aversion to the federal government—has made them few friends in Washington.

This tension between government and tech has created an opportunity for China to spread its vision of a censored, state-controlled internet to autocratic leaders in its sphere of influence.

That’s why policymakers must move away from hampering the tech industry. The blunt instrument of antitrust will not resolve online issues by simply reducing the size of tech firms and will instead make them less productive and give them fewer resources to innovate. Instead of focusing on the size of individual firms, attention should be given the data-driven business models the digital economy has made profitable.

Digital Citizens in a Digital World

One response to these ad-funded, data-driven models is to treat online users as digital citizens who create value through their online activity. This would mean viewing the act of creating data as a form of labor as opposed to simply something tech companies receive. Shifting to this philosophy would grant users greater rights over their data and a claim to its economic value.

Indeed, adding a personal economic dimension to our digital lives would give us more control over how companies use our data. By changing the dynamics of how Big Tech firms profit and relate to users, we can create a more inclusive model of the digital economy.

Google seems to believe it can help increase internet freedom instead of legitimizing the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive approach.

Crafting a healthy digital world would also make tech companies less prone to political attacks and allow them to promote an American vision of the internet globally. After all, a digital ecosystem that is less divisive is easier to sell against authoritarian alternatives.

But this is an ambitious cultural vision and requires less reactionary regulations and more understanding among policymakers. We would also need more robust investigations into how the digital economy operates and more collaboration with the tech industry.

As they reckon with these issues, large tech firms have started to move away from their laissez-faire philosophy. We can see this in Google’s repeated attempts to re-enter China, in which they’ve offered to comply with censorship practices that go against their mission to increase access to information. Somehow, Google seems to believe it can help increase internet freedom instead of what it’s more likely to do: legitimize the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive approach.

The Scope of Restrictions Matter

The tech industry also needs to appreciate the unique insights of Washington—its long-term viability depends on it. Big Tech firms criticize the moves toward state-controlled internet in Thailand and Vietnam, but they can’t seem to stop making things worse for themselves. As long as they keep it up, authoritarians can continue to justify change for the worse.

Instead of fundamentally changing, tech firms are compromising their values. In an effort to make concessions, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently advocated for the same kind of narrow and costly regulations that Silicon Valley once fought against. Silicon Valley and Washington need to realize they’re on the same team.Prioritizing the short-term economic interests of large firms like Facebook, which can afford to comply with regulations—rather than focusing on expanding opportunity online—is a step in the wrong direction.

As long as this narrow approach is taken, the changes needed to fix the digital economy won’t happen. Instead, we’ll find that growing and oppressive visions of the internet from China and elsewhere will continue to spread around the globe. Silicon Valley and Washington need to realize they’re on the same team.