Vince Bzdek: Is Big Tech a big threat to free speech?

Jan. 30—Remember the early days of the internet, when tech companies told us how their inventions would bring freedom of speech to the entire planet? Facebook and Twitter and Google promised a big interconnected World Wide Web that would forever guarantee the free flow of information, bringing light to the world's dark crevices.

Now, Colorado U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, in a new book called "Crushed," argues that we have come full circle, and the very tech titans who had promised to bring free speech to the four corners of the globe are the biggest threat to free speech on the planet.

No question the internet has transformed the public square, supplanting our actual public squares with a vast virtual one. Problem is, Buck says, our communication commons is controlled by a handful of tech companies — Twitter, Meta, Google, and Amazon — not us. They're dictating who can speak and how they may speak.

"The marketplace of ideas is now a gated community within the digital sphere. For 200 years, that marketplace was self-regulated. Not anymore."

So if Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk don't particularly like certain people and what they're saying, they are so powerful and the platforms they control used by so many people, they can effectively restrict the free speech of those individuals.

And Buck worries that gives tech lords the ability to effectively deny constitutionally protected liberties. What good is a government-guaranteed right of free speech if the government doesn't have any real control over the public square?

"Big Tech controls the marketplace of ideas and the markets in a way that defies oversight," Buck contends.

Ken Buck is a conservative, and much of his argument is built on claims that tech companies have unfairly silenced conservative voices. But liberals shouldn't be distracted by the axes he grinds in his book: The alarms Buck sounds in "Crushed" should worry free speech lovers of all stripes.

Let's unpack Buck's argument a bit more to see why.

In the "marketplace of ideas" — a wonderful phrase coined by English philosopher John Stuart Mill — ideas get accepted by competing with each other head to head, without government interference or censorship. For Mill, "ensuring an unimpeded flow was a way to protect individual independence and prevent social control by a government or an oppressive popular idea," Buck writes in his book. Good journalism embraces much the same thing: the ideal news story gathers the best arguments from both sides of an issue and lets those ideas battle it out, allowing readers to decide which argument is the stronger.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes expanded on Mill's idea in a dissenting opinion: "Ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade and ideas. The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market."

But Big Tech has put a thumb on the scale, Buck argues. They are the arbiters of the marketplace now, and they are able to selectively disseminate information as they see fit, so the test for the truth is broken.

Aren't their good intentions and promises to live up to our sacred right of free speech enough? They're good Americans, aren't they?

Buck says no one should be trusted to always do the right thing, no matter how benign they claim their intentions are. That's giving them way too much power over the First Amendment.

Constitutionally, they have total freedom to do whatever they want with the speech on their platforms. They are private companies, after all. The First Amendment only forbids government actors from limiting free speech, and Facebook, Amazon and Twitter are not government actors.

So the tech lords are immune to the very safeguards that keep government from infringing on free-speech rights.

So what do we do about it? If free speech is truly threatened, how do we save our most precious American commodity?

Buck believes it's time for some serious trust-busting. Like the big monopolies of the early 20th century — John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Co. and J.P. Morgan's Northern Securities Co. — Buck thinks today's tech companies need to be busted.

He believes Big Tech companies have overextended their power through self-preferencing practices, restricting competition through mergers and acquisitions, and through censorship.

As his foreword states, "There has never been such an aggregation of power in the history of humankind as Big Tech enjoys today with the money, monopoly power, and hubris that comes with the unchecked exercise of power."

Reining in that power will take fresh legislation from Congress, lawsuits invoking antitrust laws that chip away at their anti-competitiveness, and concerted individual action against Big Tech, as well, Buck believes.

On Tuesday, Colorado jumped into this fight with both feet. A group of eight states including Colorado sued Google, accusing it of illegally creating a monopoly over technology that powers online advertising. It is the fifth antitrust lawsuit filed by U.S. officials against Google since 2020, as lawmakers and regulators try to rein in the power that Big Tech exerts over information and commerce.

Another reform sponsored by Buck that would help the cause of free speech is languishing in Congress right now. It is vital to the future of journalism in this country, and therefore near and dear to my heart. A group representing publishers has pushed Congress to allow news sites to negotiate the terms of ad deals collectively with Google and other online platforms, coordination that is now illegal under antitrust laws, even though Google is much bigger and more powerful than all those publishers combined. The publishers' efforts have been unsuccessful so far.

Buck has some practical suggestions for us individuals in this fight, too. Among them are:

— Seek alternatives to Big Tech products so that competition whittles away their dominance. Buck himself has gone cold turkey and stopped using all Amazon, Apple, Meta and Google products.

— Change your settings on their sites so you share less data with Big Tech.

— Ask your elected leaders and favorite political organizations if they take donations from Big Tech. And then ask them to take the "Pledge for America," which Buck has done, swearing off Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter campaign donations.

— Spread the word, donate to campaigns that will fight for free speech, and vote for the politicians who are committed to the fight.

Buck believes the future of free speech depends on what we do right now. It's a big uneven fight, he concedes, with Big Tech pouring millions of dollars into lobbying to keep their monopolies. In fact, on Friday Buck was snubbed by his own party in his bid to head an antitrust subcommittee in Congress. His push for a more significant role for the federal government in checking the power of Big Tech has some fierce enemies among pro-business Republicans.

But he points out that America was born of just such a David-Goliath fight.

"As I've documented, the United States of America was formed in large part to counteract a vicious, oppressive monopoly. We must carry that lesson as we go forward.

"This threat to free speech is a risk that America can't afford."