Last week, both the House and the Senate hauled in social media giants Facebook and Twitter to explain why they’re banning conservatives on their platforms, their efforts to stop the Russians from stealing the next election and limiting “misinformation” on their ostensibly “neutral” properties.
What shows they were! It seems that after its 20-year love affair with Silicon Valley, Congress has begun the awkward public process of breaking up with the oligarchs there. At least, that’s what the script said. Noted Virginia Senator Mark Warner during the Senate hearing, "The era of the wild west in social media is coming to an end,” adding in a separate interview, “I don’t think we can completely rely upon simply the goodwill of the corporate shareholders or the management of these companies [to do what’s right for America].”
Clearly, Congress’ public embrace of the Valley appears to be less warm-hearted now than the halcyon days prior to the 2016 election – you know, before the very tools used by the previous administration to win its elections were used by President Trump to make America great again.
Right now, the “shiny object” for Congress and policymakers apparently is “policing” social media networks.
Congress might consider its lovey-dovey relationship with e-commerce instead.
Last Friday, the monthly jobs numbers came out showing that America picked up over 200,000 jobs in August. The economy is heating up for sure.
When one peers into those numbers, though, one can’t help but conclude that Congress would rather attention be directed at the “problem” of regulating social media instead of what Silicon Valley and trillion-dollar e-commerce behemoths like Amazon are doing to establishments like Toys ’R’ Us and the local five-and-dime on Main Street.
While retailers added 62,000 jobs over the year, areas that are particularly vulnerable to e-commerce got hit hard. Department stores lost 19,000 jobs. Electronics outlets, 6,000. Clothing and accessories retailers lost 10,000. Sporting goods, hobby, books and music stores lost 31,000 jobs. Not surprisingly, non-store retail (which includes e-commerce) saw a gain of 28,000 jobs over the same period, reflecting that market’s stellar 15%-plus growth compared to a far smaller, 3.6% gain for physical stores over the past year. By all estimates, the explosion in online retail does not look to abate anytime soon.
Of course, how could it? Like a favored paramour, Congress grants the Internet a tremendous leg-up over its real-world competitors.
Among this support: Congress gives online providers immunity from content posted by third-parties (via Section 230 of the Telecom Act); a safe harbor from copyright infringement for content posted by third-parties (Digital Millennium Copyright Act); freedom from multiple and discriminatory state and local taxes for Internet access (Internet Tax Freedom Act); and runs the protection racket, which for the past 20 years has kept the Valley out of the cross-hairs of agencies such as the DoJ, FTC and FCC.
Yes, American consumers and society have benefitted from these and other laws and policies. Without a doubt, the Internet is an awesome tool which has made our lives richer on many different levels. Key to that success has been keeping government out of the mix where possible.
But, the Internet is no longer “nascent”; the reason for that overt, wet-kiss support has changed. Quite simply, it's distorting markets and killing jobs in towns across the nation.
For me, a good area (among others) to start addressing this institutional favoritism would be Section 230. It drives Silicon Valley’s business model of willful blindness, promoting an ethos of state-promoted theft and lawlessness. Any physical retailer has a responsibility for all that it sells from its shelves. It can’t hawk stolen goods, or traffic in libelous content, etc. But for Silicon Valley – as long as it “doesn’t know” what’s going on, then just about anything that crosses its platforms is fair game for sale, or to run ads against and thus profit from.
Advantages like these aren’t right.
Congress is spending a lot of time showing the world that Silicon Valley’s bad social etiquette does not deserve its PDA. What could use a little more of its loving attention, however, is Main Street.
To this end, legislators would do well to recognize the distortion they have foisted onto the marketplace through their laws and policies, and work to remove or modify those that unreasonably perpetuate the disparate treatment between e-commerce and brick-and-mortar establishments.
Mike Wendy is president of Media Freedom, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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