Before his fall from grace, then-White House senior staffer Steve Bannon addressed a California Republican Party convention and announced that the real enemy of America was not the longhaired protesters outside the event, or even the Democrats, but the “liberal global elites” who run Silicon Valley. These “lords of Silicon Valley” must be stopped, cried Bannon, saying that they may try to lead Californians to secede from the Union.
Even after Bannon’s ouster from the White House, Roger Stone, famous for Nixonian dirty tricks took up the Google-bashing trope. Stone hosted a happy hour at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this year and tore into Google for squelching free speech through its “political correctness.” And now Republicans have started an odd dog-whistle drumbeat that there’s some sort of political bias against conservatives reflected in Google search results (as opposed to, say, a pattern of offensive things actually said by members of the alt-right or internet trolls looking to start controversy that show up in automated Google searches).
Unfortunately, this kind of hyperbole is not reserved just for the extreme right; many of my fellow progressives seem willing to jump on the Google-bashing bandwagon, unwittingly helping the alt-right to carry out its political vendettas. A recent Washington Post article notes concerns about competition raised by Rep. Keith Ellison, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — all of whom I admire and have supported in many ways over the years. Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline chimed in that tech companies have contributed “to the centralization of information online” and joined these Democrats in calling for more aggressive regulatory scrutiny of technology companies.
Now, I fight mergers for a living, from Comcast’s failed attempt to buy Time Warner Cable in 2015 (about which regulatory bodies expressed concern, worried it would make Comcast a gatekeeper to the internet) to Sinclair Broadcast Group’s current bid for Tribune Media. Strong antitrust enforcement is in my progressive DNA. So, when my law school friend now at Google asked if I’d represent the company, the logical answer would have been a firm, “no.” In the wake of the alt-right’s rise, however, I gladly took on my new client because I saw a real danger in the alt-right’s thinly veiled use of antitrust as a way to score political points. That danger has proven to be all too real.
Should technology companies comply with the law, protect consumers, and compete fairly? Of course. Criticism of any tech company that fails to do so is well founded. But I worry that my fellow progressives can’t see through the alt-right smokescreen. Alt-righters like Bannon and Stone have it out for the likes of Google not because they share progressives’ concerns, but because they hate freethinking, open-minded people with power who are willing to resist.
To the alt-right Bannon/Stone nativist fringe, companies like Google represent everything they fear: young, smart, international, Northern Californian, often progressive people who are even willing to sue the administration to help immigrants and DREAMers. Just last week, Silicon Valley CEOs were some of the most vocal corporate critics of the Trump administration’s separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Contrast the alt-right’s invocation of antitrust against Google to its kid-glove treatment of conservative media. Sinclair Broadcast Group, a right-wing propagandist posing as a broadcaster, appears to be breezing through the initial merger review process and even received praise from right wingers when Deadspin.com released a devastating video showing dozens of Sinclair anchors reading mandatory right-wing talking points about fake news. Contrast that to the alt-tight’s antitrust posture toward media companies that criticize the current administration. The Department of Justice went to court, fought, and lost its effort to block AT&T’s acquisition of CNN parent company Time Warner.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the same kind of regulatory scrutiny and concern applied to the oil and gas, coal, pharmaceutical, or banking industries? Perhaps the alt-right thinks that a Texas based company like ExxonMobil just isn’t as dangerous as Silicon Valley-based internet companies.
So I wince every time I see a progressive unwittingly support this bastardization of antitrust law enforcement by repeating the alt-right’s tech talking points. I get it. Progressives question the accumulation of power, whether political or economic.
But let’s not take the bait; let’s not get played. Don’t unwittingly help the alt-right to go after its political rivals. Instead, ask the same questions I just did: Why all the attention to Google and not ExxonMobil? Why the warnings about too much power in the hands of too few when talking about online search but not oil? Tell the alt-right that we’ll take your howls more seriously when you take antitrust enforcement seriously and go after fossil fuel, financial services, and pharmaceuticals with the same venom you’ve shown towards tech.
David Goodfriend is a Washington, D.C., lawyer and advocate, former deputy staff secretary to President Bill Clinton, and adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center and George Washington University Law School. His clients include DISH Network, PayPal, Google, and FUSE Media.
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