Joel Bakan is a professor of law at the University of British Columbia.
The U.S. government’s lawsuit against Google LLC for allegedly cajoling browser makers, wireless carriers and smartphone makers to promote its search engine is the biggest antitrust case in decades. Yet Alphabet Inc.’s stock price was up on news of the lawsuit, hardly an indication of investor worry. Investors know that even if Google loses the case, it will suffer little. That is because antitrust law in the United States – the proud achievement of trust-busting president Theodore Roosevelt, whose Sherman Anti-Trust Act was used to break-up Standard Oil Co. – has been gutted over the past four decades to the point companies such as Google have little to fear.
This needs to change, not only for the economic reasons typically advanced – that strong antitrust measures are needed to ensure competition, innovation, prosperity and fairness in market economies – but also for democratic reasons. When companies become too big, too powerful and too monopolistic, they have too much influence over democratic institutions and processes. That can subvert democracy. “We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both,” as U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis has been widely quoted as saying.
One example: Today, most political debate and discussion takes place on platforms owned and run by monopolistic concerns such as Facebook and Google. That means the demos – citizens democratically deliberating about who will represent them in government and what will be their common fate and future – is now located within corporate domains driven by the logic business models and profit. That raises concern among political philosophers. But it’s not just a philosophical problem. In very real terms, democracy is put at risk when public debate, the very thing that makes it possible, becomes a resource for private gain.
Take this looming threat to democracy, the prospect of President Donald Trump rejecting an adverse election result on Nov. 3 and clinging to power. Platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are, because of their inordinate roles in hosting democratic discourse, the places this sad drama would play out.
The companies are well aware of this, and they’re making plans. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is reported to have floated the idea of a “kill switch” to halt political ads after election day, and has vowed to ban new political ads a week before. His company would also flag misleading claims about voting, and warn users about premature statements of victory. Twitter is also taking steps, already having shown willingness to act by hiding a Trump tweet (about postal voting) that, it said, could dissuade people from voting and thereby breach civic and election integrity. “This election is not going to be business as usual,” Mr. Zuckerberg has remarked. “We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy.”
These companies are telling us they can be relied upon to defend democracy in what could be its darkest hour. And it’s tempting to believe them. But if the fate of U.S. democracy rests on the decisions of a few corporate behemoths, we’re in trouble. History shows large corporations are, at best, fair-weather friends of democracy, overriding, resisting, manipulating and even helping overthrow it when it gets in their way. And big tech companies are an acute case, imbued with Silicon Valley’s anti-government culture, and happily taking the lead in big business’s decades-long campaign to push back democratic oversight – including antitrust oversight.
If Mr. Trump tries to weaponize social media as part of an attempt to cling to power, it’s these very same tech giants – who compete with democratic governments for power, who view those governments as threats to profits, and who do their best to diminish those governments' capacities to regulate and oversee them – that will be in charge of deciding democracy’s fate.
And lest we somehow believe that, despite it all, they would still do the right thing, let’s not forget their basic business models. Boosting clicks and key strokes is how they make money, and amplifying lies, disinformation, hate and incendiary speech does just that. The fact is that, for these companies, fomenting discord and controversy is profitable – and there’s nothing more discordant and controversial than a rogue president recklessly spewing self-interested falsehoods. The latter may be disastrous for democracy, but it’s great for these companies' bottom lines. And within the corporate calculus, profits beat out democracy.
Therefore, in what could be democracy’s darkest hour, its fate will be decided by the same corporate giants who systematically resist democratic control and reap profits from democracy’s troubles. That is discomfiting, to put it mildly.
While big tech companies are likely to take measures if Mr. Trump goes rogue, don’t expect anything that might squander a potentially profitable opportunity. Saving democracy would require more – a lot more – than what they offer. Bans on political ads, flags on flat-out falsehoods and whatever else they propose might be good as far as they go, but they won’t counter the viral magnification of false and divisive rhetoric that fattens their bottom lines.
In short, the rogue president scenario reveals the precarious place democracy is in as its very lifeblood – public debate about the terms of our collective existence – courses across corporate platforms that profit from discord and division. The fact we may end up relying on these companies to stem a democratic bloodletting is beyond ironic. It is downright terrifying, and another reason the antitrust law should be reinvigorated to make it something more than the mere annoyance it now is for Google and other big tech companies. It’s time for more robust antitrust measures, perhaps even for breaking these companies up. Democracy’s survival may depend on it.
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