The Wall Street Journal is reporting that momentum is building for the U.S. government to subject Google and other Big Tech firms to antitrust scrutiny for fears that they have become too big and too powerful.
In today’s digital ecosystem, politicians, political parties, organizations and media all rely on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google and Youtube to get the message out because that’s where consumers by and large go to in order to consume information.
A Pew report found 68 percent of adult Americans use Facebook, or over 170 million. 24 percent use Twitter, or about 61 million. A separate Pew report found 73 percent, or 185 million, use broadband internet. Statista reports that Google’s family of sites are the most popular in America, with 255 million unique U.S. visitors in March 2019 alone.
So, the internet is indisputably a huge part of the way people are getting information nowadays.
Now, conservatives and Republicans have become alarmed as many of these platforms are censoring and restricting speech that does not coincide with Big Tech’s social justice agenda. Deplatforming is real. Actor James Woods has been censored on Twitter, Stephen Crowder has been demonetized on Youtube (owned by Google) and Candace Owens was temporarily suspended on Facebook before the company did a reversal and declared it “an error.”
Political discrimination is destructive as it creates an incentive to silence your political opponents. Suddenly you have countrymen reporting on one another to get them deplatformed. Is this healthy for a society?
But it is not merely the reporting features that are being abused on these platforms.
Project Veritas’ James O’Keefe released a video on June 24 that showed how the algorithms that produce Google search results (and other machine learning) are programmed with algorithmic “fairness” in mind to prevent, per an internal 2017 Google document, “unjust or prejudicial treatment of people that is related to sensitive characteristics such as race, income, sexual orientation or gender, through algorithmic systems or algorithmically aided decision-making.”
Just throw in political affiliation, philosophy or religion, and one can immediately recognize how Republicans, conservatives or Christians might feel marginalized on social media platforms, but Google did not end up looking into that. A study by Google in 2018 on algorithmic fairness stated, “due to our focus on traditionally marginalized populations, we did not gather data about how more privileged populations think about or experience algorithmic fairness.”
As a Google executive in the video who was quoted in an undercover camera noted, “Communities who are in power and have traditionally been in power are not who I’m solving fairness for.”
But if Google had looked at other groups, they would have likely found that supposedly “privileged” populations can feel marginalized, too. The 2018 study unsurprisingly found that participants expressed, “In addition to their concerns about potential harms to themselves and society, participants also indicated that algorithmic fairness (or lack thereof) could substantially affect their trust in a company or product” and that “when participants perceived companies were protecting them from unfairness or discrimination, it greatly enhanced user trust and strengthened their relationships with those companies.”
The thing is, nobody wants to be discriminated against, and if they are it will affect their perception of the company or companies that are doing it. Deplatforming, censorship and manipulating search and news results undermines trust in these Big Tech firms, and suddenly makes them a problem that many want to solve. No need for another focus group.
So, what responsibility does Big Tech have to foster our way of life and our competitive system of representative government, if any?
I would argue just as much responsibility as they feel to tackle the issue of fairness for historically marginalized groups, if for no other reason than it is good, sound business to cater to all comers, particularly in the political and governmental sphere. Why make enemies? It’s provocative.
Many solutions have been proposed to help there to be a level playing field on the Internet. Some are heavy-handed and appear to miss the target, while others are more narrow.
There is the Federal Communications Commission route, which might seek to make public utilities out of Big Tech companies, and all the regulation that comes with that. Net neutrality springs to mind, although that appeared more focused on throttling broadband speeds due to how much data was being used, whereas the issues today appear to focus on content-based censorship.
There is antitrust approach, whether via the Federal Trade Commission or the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, that might envision breaking up these large companies. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has come out for this approach. In a recent statement, she said, “As these companies have grown larger and more powerful, they have used their resources and control over the way we use the internet to squash small businesses and innovation, and substitute their own financial interests for the broader interests of the American people. To restore the balance of power in our democracy, to promote competition, and to ensure that the next generation of technology innovation is as vibrant as the last, it’s time to break up our biggest tech companies.”
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act exempts “interactive computer services” from liability of what their users post, and grants them the power to remove items at their discretion they find objectionable. Some have proposed simply removing the liability protections, which would render sites that allow users to write whatever they want suddenly subject to liability of hundreds of millions of users. It would also effectively destroy the Internet, since nobody would be willing to assume the risk of hosting somebody else’s material that might be defamatory.
Some have called for conservatives to boycott these platforms and to take their business elsewhere or to make their own platforms, but what sort of echo chamber would we wind up with? More to the point, to win elections, Republicans have to appeal to independents and unaffiliated voters. You buy ads where there’s ad space to reach undecideds. Insular practices of exclusively only talking to partisans on your side is a recipe for being in the minority for a very long time. It does not grow a political movement to do that.
This author has posited that perhaps Congress could narrowly expand the franchise of protected groups under civil rights to include politics, philosophy and the like (although excluding employment hiring for exclusive organizations like political parties and organizations) and defining interactive computer services as public accommodations so that services cannot be denied on the basis of partisan differences. Throw in banking, DNS resolution, web hosting and email services as public accommodations while we’re at it for good measure.
From the perspectives of the Big Tech companies, surely they have noticed a marked uptick in calls to regulate their firms? Conservatives complain about censorship. Elizabeth Warren is worried about smaller businesses. The calls for regulation are directly proportionate to how powerful these firms have become. Do any of the above options sound profitable or more like a regulatory headache that will cost millions or billions of dollars to manage?
And these are not even things we would normally consider, but throw in the prospect of censorship and suddenly it’s an existential matter of survival. Republicans who might normally defend these companies from regulation might look the other way when it comes up now. See how that works?
The truth is, I’m taking time out of my column to focus on this issue and so are many other organizations that are worried they too could be censored. The platforms we’re talking about have such market saturation that is so pervasive it could be utilized to discriminate on the basis of politics in order foster conditions conducive to one-party rule, which I believe to be dangerous.
More broadly, groups like Americans for Limited Government and political parties depend on a competitive political system to function. If we and others like us were suddenly barred from posting on social media or hosting a website or sending emails, suffice to say we would not function for much longer.
In a representative form of government, political parties’ access to media and their followers are critical to building and growing constituencies, and in the digital age these represent a digital sort of civil rights, and they must be protected in order for that system to continue to exist. One party systems do not respect civil rights. They squelch dissent to consolidate power and they target political opponents and critics of the system.
The great Renaissance philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli supposed that there were but two forms of government, republics and principalities, perhaps for that reason. One is ruled by the consent of the governed and the separation of powers, and the other by the will and domination of the state and over time needs to instill fear in order to govern.
There are liberal democracies that foster debate, and then there are one party systems that demand loyalty to the state. There’s not much in between.
The alarming trends we’re seeing with Big Tech companies engaging in censorship in the pursuit of “fairness” look a lot like a bid for one party rule. And the thing about one party systems is, once you have one, it’s really, really hard to get rid of it and there’s no guarantee that your favored class will be represented in its leadership. Sometimes those who support the rise of such a system wind up being marginalized by it. Look no further than Elizabeth Warren to see what lies at the end of that tunnel. Is it worth the risk? Be careful what you wish for.
U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) on May 18 called for the impeachment of President Donald Trump in a Twitter thread, accusing him of committing obstruction of justice and “conduct that violates the public trust,” citing the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as justification.
Nowhere in the Twitter thread did Amash make a specific allegation of which conduct by President Trump he was referring to that obstructed justice or violated the public trust — although he said there were “multiple examples”. In May 2017, Amash did indicate that President Trump firing former FBI Director James Comey could be a basis for impeachment, a topic the Mueller report does consider, so let’s assume for the purposes of this discussion that in part that is what he’s talking about.
Critically, nowhere in the Twitter thread did Amash mention Russia or the fact that the Mueller report had found no coordination or conspiracy with Russia by President Trump, his campaign or any American for that matter to interfere in the 2016 elections.
Mueller stated in the report, “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” It also stated, “the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.”
That is important because the only reason President Trump was under investigation in the first place were false allegations made by former British spy Christopher Steele, beginning in the summer of 2016, paid for by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign, that Trump was a Russian agent and his campaign had coordinated the hack of the DNC and posting the emails on Wikileaks with Russia. Those allegations were given to the FBI and eventually formed the basis of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant application against the Trump campaign in Oct. 2016.
Amash has always been a hawk on reining in FISA abuse. In July 2013, Americans for Limited Government supported his efforts to rein in mass surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA). In Jan. 2018, when the USA Rights Act came up as an amendment by Amash, Americans for Limited Government again supported it, specifically because we believed if it had been law, the FISA abuse that occurred in 2016 would not have been possible, and that it might be a means of preventing it.
When more information about the Steele dossier’s role in the FISA warrant began to be known in Feb. 2018 with the release of the House Select Committee on Intelligence memorandum, Amash responded on Twitter calling for Congress to enact the USA Rights Act if members of Congress were concerned about FISA abuse.
Of the memo, Amash said, “The central allegation is that a warrant was obtained fraudulently or without sufficient cause. If true, it shows the dangers of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, something @libertycaucus and @freedomcaucus members have been saying for a long time.”
Amash noted, “the section of FISA discussed in the memo requires probable cause and a warrant.” Here, Amash is referring to 50 U.S. Code Sec. 1805(a)(2), which would have required probable cause that Carter Page, then a Trump campaign official, was acting as a foreign agent for the warrant to be issued.
But there was no probable cause. Steele, we now know in the Oct. 2016 FISA warrant application obtained by Judicial Watch in July 2018 in a Freedom of Information Act request, used “sub-source(s),” and the court was fully aware that Steele was not an eye-witness to the allegations. It stated Steele “tasked his sub-source(s) to collect the requisite information.” And then, after Steele “received information from the sub-source(s),” it was passed along to the FBI. So, the court knew it was second-hand or third-hand information, or hearsay.
These were rumors that were given to the FISA Court. The information was unverified, something Steele would later admit in testimony, saying that the allegations needed to be “further corroborated and verified.” Steele said his sources were Kremlin officals close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but so far no evidence has been presented publicly he actually spoke to those sources directly.
In fact, Steele never went to Russia. Instead, according to testimony by Fusion GPS’ Glenn Simpson before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Nov. 2017, Steele hired “a network of sources who live in or came from the place that you’re interested in… who can travel and talk to people and find out what’s going on” to get the dirt. But we don’t know who, since, per Simpson, “I didn’t ask for the specific identities of specific people.”
On why didn’t Steele go to Russia himself, Simpson said “[H]e really would not be safe if he went to Russia. He’s been exposed as a former undercover British Intelligence officer who worked in Moscow. So it wouldn’t be wise for him to go to Russia.”
A March 2017 Vanity Fair piece about Steele by Howard Blum similarly stated, “[Steele] could count on an army of sources whose loyalty and information he had bought and paid for over the years. There was no safe way he could return to Russia to do the actual digging; the vengeful F.S.B. would be watching him closely. But no doubt he had a working relationship with knowledgeable contacts in London and elsewhere in the West, from angry émigrés to wheeling-and-dealing oligarchs always eager to curry favor with a man with ties to the Secret Service, to political dissidents with well-honed axes to grind. And, perhaps most promising of all, he had access to the networks of well-placed Joes — to use the jargon of his former profession — he’d directed from his desk at London Station, assets who had their eyes and ears on the ground in Russia.”
McCain Institute Senior Director for Human Rights and Human Freedoms David Kramer, testified in federal court about when he met Steele to get the dossier after the 2016 election, with the purpose of giving it to the late Sen. John McCain. Kramer said Steele told him, in Kramer’s words, “what was produced … needed to be corroborated and verified, he himself did not feel that he was in a position to vouch for everything that was produced…”
In May 2017, former FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the dossier was “salacious and unverified.”
By the time President Trump was being inaugurated in Jan. 2017, the dossier had been published by Buzzfeed. It was known as early as April 2017 that the dossier had been used in the FISA warrant application. That was a month before Comey was fired by President Donald Trump for lying to him about the extent of the investigation.
In his order firing Comey, Trump wrote, “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”
Steele had alleged in July 2016 that not only had Russia hacked the Democrats and put the emails on Wikileaks, which was already public knowledge since June 2016, but that Trump and his campaign helped with “full knowledge and support” of the operation. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, as well as campaign advisor Carter Page when he traveled to Moscow in July 2016, were both named by Steele as the key intermediaries to the Kremlin. Steele said then-Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen had traveled to Prague in the summer of 2016 to meet with Russian agents to mop up the fallout of the supposed operation.
The Mueller report debunked those claims, stating, “In particular, the Office did not find evidence likely to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Campaign officials such as Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, and Carter Page acted as agents of the Russian government — or at its direction, control or request — during the relevant time period.”
Manafort was brought up on unrelated tax and bank fraud charges. Papadopoulos pled guilty of lying to investigators about his start date with the Trump campaign. Page was not charged with anything. As for Cohen, per the Mueller report, “Cohen had never traveled to Prague…” And so, he very well could not have been there meeting with Russian intelligence officials.
Trump knew all along and was well aware there was no basis for the investigation. For example, it was known as early as Jan. 2017 that Cohen had never traveled to Prague. Trump himself was also in a position to know that Steele’s allegations that he was Russian agent were false. So, when it became public that the FBI relied on false allegations to get electronic surveillance on the Trump campaign, and that the investigation into Trump had been carried over into his administration, which Comey lied about to Trump, the President had more than ample basis for firing Comey.
The only reason Mueller was appointed was because Trump fired Comey, who was leading the investigation — which turned out to be into a crime that was not committed by Trump or his team. At the time, Amash was already on the record in May 2017 saying that the firing could be the basis for impeaching Trump.
But Comey should have been fired. The FISA warrant, which Comey signed, and the ensuing investigation that carried over into the Trump administration in 2017 was all based on false information.
The FBI had reason to doubt Steele and his sources, and yet kept going back to renew the FISA warrant. A New York Times report Scott Shane, Adam Goldman and Matthew Rosenberg on April 20 that in Jan. 2017 reported the FBI interviewed one of the main sources for the dossier and came away with “misgivings about its reliability [that] arose not long after the document became public” in Jan. 2017.
Per the Times report: “By January 2017, F.B.I. agents had tracked down and interviewed one of Mr. Steele’s main sources, a Russian speaker from a former Soviet republic who had spent time in the West, according to a Justice Department document and three people familiar with the events, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. After questioning him about where he’d gotten his information, they suspected he might have added his own interpretations to reports passed on by his sources, one of the people said. For the F.B.I., that made it harder to decide what to trust.”
What is disappointing about Amash is he has previously championed FISA reform in 2013 after the NSA mass surveillance program was exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. What does Amash imagine should happen to government officials who abuse the federal government’s spying powers? Should they get promotions or something?
By defending Comey’s actions, which permitted the FISA court to be defrauded by Steele, the DNC and the Clinton campaign even after the FBI knew it was a fiction, and condemning Trump’s actions to fire Comey, Amash is condoning the use of FISA to spy on a presidential campaign, the opposition party, in an election year, for crimes, conspiracy with Russia to interfere with the election, that were not committed by Trump, his campaign or any American.
In short, Amash is buying the Justice Department’s official rationale for the Russian collusion investigation that there was “probable cause” that Trump was a Russian agent when we know for a fact that was a lie today. The court was given false information. The call for impeachment comes despite the fact that in Feb. 2018, Amash said that “a warrant… obtained fraudulently or without sufficient cause… shows the dangers of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.”
I suppose now Amash no longer believes that fraudulent FISA warrants are dangerous if they’re taken out against his political opponents, like President Trump.
Ironically, Amash now warns that “America’s institutions depend on officials to uphold both the rules and spirit of our constitutional system even when to do so is personally inconvenient or yields a politically unfavorable outcome.” He added, “When loyalty to a political party or to an individual trumps loyalty to the Constitution, the Rule of Law — the foundation of liberty — crumbles.”
I agree, and in this case, Amash might want to take his own advice. In July 2013, when the House debated his amendment barring suspicionless surveillance, Amash asked, “When you had the chance to stand up for Americans’ privacy, did you?” Today, Amash is failing his own test. So blinded by his apparent political hatred of President Trump is he, Amash is ignoring the flagrant abuse of spying authorities that occurred in 2016 against a political campaign that most certainly endangers the liberty of all Americans. For shame.
Pollsters love to do general election matchup polls early in the process to figure out which candidates would fare the best against a sitting incumbent president like Donald Trump. The idea is to give primary voters of one party or another an idea of which candidate is the most “electable.”
For example, in April 2011, Democracy Corps published a poll that showed Mitt Romney could defeat then-President Barack Obama, 48 percent to 46 percent. In Oct. 2011, another CNN-Opinion Research poll showed Romney leading 50 percent to 45 percent.
But we all know how it turned out. Even after showdowns with House Republicans over the debt ceiling in 2011 — which resulted in budget sequestration that helped reduce the deficit — Obama went on to comfortably win re-election in 2012.
So, how much stock should we put in the Politico-Morning Consult poll that shows former Vice President Joe Biden at 42 percent versus President Donald Trump at 36 percent? Almost none.
The question, particularly for first term presidents, is whether voters think it is time for a change, or if they are willing to be patient while the incumbent party finishes what it started.
In modern history, since 1952, that has yielded a fairly high re-election rate for incumbent parties in their first terms. Dwight Eisenhower was re-elected in 1956, Lyndon Johnson won John Kennedy’s second term in 1964, Richard Nixon was re-elected in 1972, Jimmy Carter was ousted in 1980, Ronald Reagan was re-elected in 1984, Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996, George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 and Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012.
All told, in modern history, in 87.5 percent of the cases where the incumbent party had served one term it tended to be re-elected.
Readers will note that George H.W. Bush is not included in that listing. The reason for that is he won Reagan’s third term — that is, the third consecutive term that Republicans had held the White House. So, his being ousted in 1992 was less surprising because it came after 12 years of uninterrupted Republican rule in the White House. The same applies to Gerald Ford, who in 1976 was running for essentially Nixon’s third term, and Lyndon Johnson and then Hubert Humphrey in 1968 running for a third Democratic term.
But even if you include Bush and Ford in the mix as far as how sitting presidents have fared in a general election, in 70 percent of cases they have won since 1952. If you want to go back to World War II, Harry Truman won election in 1948 as a sitting president, and the number jumps up to about 73 percent.
If you look as far back as the beginning of the republic, sitting presidents who have stood for re-election in the general election have won about 70 percent of the time, although it is worth noting that until the 1800s, state legislatures generally chose electors.
So, there’s a distinct incumbency advantage, especially for first-term presidents that should give Trump an edge in 2020 no matter who the candidate is.
Particularly when it comes to presidents, in modern history, the American people, particularly independents, do not aspire to one-party rule. Swing voters tend to decide elections nowadays, and after just one term, they are still a lot more likely to give the incumbent the benefit of the doubt.
Where the rubber meets the road, and what separates one-term presidents from two-term presidents, will be the primaries. Biden or whoever is going to win the Democratic nomination must first compete and win the nomination, and do so in commanding fashion (rather than being bloodied along the way), to have a good chance to oust the incumbent.
Simultaneously, whoever the Democrat nominee is would need President Trump to have a bruising primary contest for the nomination to even out the odds. If Trump is vulnerable, it should be revealed in the primaries. But is William Weld really a credible threat to Trump? We’ll find out soon.
In modern history, unchallenged incumbents have tended to cruise to reelection. The likelihood of unseating an incumbent in the primary is close to zero, but real damage can be wrought to harm to his re-election chances. For more information, check out Stony Brook University Professor Helmut Norpoth’s primary model, which offers a guide to some of these trends. (Disclosure: I took his class!)
President Trump and Republicans have been in power for just two years and change. Is it already time for a change? History says the odds are - not yet.
Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government. He