Monday, August 14, 2017

Roger McNamee’s Attack on Intellectual Freedom

In a recent op-ed, investment guru Roger McNamee lamented that I invested early in Google and Facebook and regret it. I helped create a monster. Does his regret relate to poor stock performance of these companies? No. They performed spectacularly. For McNamee, it’s ideological:

I invested in Google and Facebook years before their first revenue and profited enormously. I was an early adviser to Facebook’s team, but I am terrified by the damage being done by these Internet monopolies.

First of all, Google and Facebook are not monopolies. Properly understood, a monopoly is a privileged company or industry legally protected from competition. These companies are not monopolies in any sense of the term.

Facebook and Google get their revenue from advertising, the effectiveness of which depends on gaining and maintaining consumer attention. Borrowing techniques from the gambling industry, Facebook, Google and others exploit human nature, creating addictive behaviors that compel consumers to check for new messages, respond to notifications, and seek validation from technologies whose only goal is to generate profits for their owners.

Get it? We consumers are just helpless, mindless robots ready to be programmed by addiction peddlers Facebook and Google. But where’s the “compulsion” in “compel consumers?” You won’t find it. McNamee continues:

The people at Facebook and Google believe that giving consumers more of what they want and like is worthy of praise, not criticism. What they fail to recognize is that their products are not making consumers happier or more successful. Like gambling, nicotine, alcohol or heroin, Facebook and Google — most importantly through its YouTube subsidiary — produce short-term happiness with serious negative consequences in the long term. Users fail to recognize the warning signs of addiction until it is too late.  

Get it? We consumers are a faceless, indistinguishable herd without reason, values, or free will—except for McNamee, who knows we all unhappily and unsuccessfully exploit Facebook’s and Google’s products. We just don’t know what’s good for us. But McNamee knows. This reminds me of George W. Bush’s description of our use of fossil fuel energy as an “addiction.” Both McNamee and Bush tar great, life-serving industries by placing them in the same category as heroin.

But McNamee’s attack is far more dangerous than Bush’s, serious as that is. Whereas Bush deals with companies that serve the marketplace for goods, McNamee tarnishes an industry that serves the marketplace for intellectual content. It was inevitable that, once we accepted government control of the marketplace of goods, the government’s regulatory powers would be extended to the marketplace for ideas—the bulwark of government accountability and a free society. McNamee gives that threat another push toward reality.

I don’t buy for a minute the addiction ruse. What, then, is really behind McNamee’s attack on Google and Facebook?

Technology has transformed our lives in countless ways, mostly for the better. Thanks to the now ubiquitous smartphone, tech touches us from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep. While the convenience of smartphones has many benefits, the unintended consequences of well-intentioned product choices have become a menace to public health and to democracy. [emphasis added]

Forget “public health.” that’s an abstraction—and a distraction. Health is individual. So is addiction, whether physical or psychological. These alleged  “addictions” McNamee frets over, such as they are actually real, are a problem for doctors, not the “public” or the government. What’s really eating at McNamee is that he doesn’t like the way people are voting. On CNBC, he laments the Brexit and the 2016 U.S. election results as symptoms of these “addictions.”

Would McNamee have written this column if Brexit had failed and Hillary Clinton had won? Those election results are not a menace to democracy. They’re a menace to McNamee’s political opinions. He obviously doesn't like the free flow of information and ideas that Google, Facebook, and the internet fosters, if the voters agree with the “wrong” ideas. McNamee’s “addiction” problem is like the Left’s post-election attack on “fake news,” which fostered calls for controls on the internet. McNamee’s attack is dangerous because he strongly, albeit implicitly, calls for government regulation:

Incentives being what they are, we cannot expect Internet monopolies to police themselves. There is little government regulation and no appetite to change that. If we want to stop brain hacking, consumers will have to force changes at Facebook and Google.

This is right out of Steve Bannon’s playbook. Bannon calls for regulation of Facebook and Google as public utilities—which means, government control.

I don’t know if McNamee realizes how much like Donald Trump he sounds in bashing Facebook and Google with phrases like “brain hacking.” But one thing is certain: The only monopoly we have to fear is the government because of its legal monopoly on physical force. The government is the only institution that can compel compliance at gunpoint, either directly or by threat of throwing you in a cage. This is why governments should be constitutionally restricted to protecting individual rights. It should not be involved in regulating either the marketplace for goods or the marketplace for ideas.

Neither Google nor Facebook can compel anyone by force—and consumers can’t force Google and Facebook. McNamee wants to substitute government force for private voluntarism in the marketplace of ideas, giving government the power to determine what constitutes “misinformation” and enforcing its determination by regulation—which of course means, by force. There isn’t an aspiring American dictator who wouldn’t relish such an power. McNamee apparently believes that private individuals and their companies that cannot force you are a menace, but a government that can legally force you is not. This is a dangerous inversion of priorities for any free society, but a particularly dangerous inversion when directed at the intellectual freedom of a society. Today it will be information spread through social media. Tomorrow?  If the kind of power over individual behavior that McNamee asserts Google and Facebook have is a danger, then that power in the hands of government is untold orders of magnitude more dangerous. You can escape the clutches of Google simply by saying “no”—or using your own free speech rights to refute what you believe constitutes “misinformation.” Try escaping the legal clutches of government. You’ll be thrown into a cage.

And if such sinister power to allegedly “compel consumers” in the hands of private companies like Google and Facebook, which don’t have the power of physical compulsion, is a menace to public health and to democracy, imagine the menace when such power is placed in the hands of government officials, which do have that physical power? History records the devastating answer.

When confronted by proposals from the likes of Roger McNamee and Steve Bannon for government regulation to protect us from our own free choices offered to us by those “evil” private companies, the age-old question once again resurfaces: Who will protect us from our protectors? We must recognize McNamee’s and others’ attack on “internet monopolies” for what they are—calls for government censorship and an attack on intellectual freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment—and reject them without reservation.

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