Lately, big technologies – Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, and Amazon – have become even more aggressive to remove conservatives from their platforms and services. While some people have criticized these acts as violating freedom of expression, the common defense is that they are private corporations and freedom of expression only restricts the government. For a classic liberal like me, this is a strong argument. But I now believe that classical liberalism allows lawmakers to prohibit many of the acts of big tech not as violations of freedom of expression, but as undue discrimination against persons with quasi-monopoly power.
It is important to emphasize that my argument relates only to whether such a ban on discrimination is compatible with classical liberal principles, not whether it would be a desirable policy. The latter question depends on whether the results of such a ban would turn out to be better than those of a market without the ban. The more fundamental question, however, is whether the restriction of a private unit is at all compatible with classical liberal principles. It is important to follow your own principles. Otherwise, as Hayek pointed out, the needs of the particular crisis or problem occurring will dominate our minds and lead us to ignore the long-term considerations that underlie our principles.
Classical liberalism generally advocates boundaries of government and the promotion of competitive markets as a means of protecting freedom and promoting prosperity. With regard to government, classical liberalism supports the restriction of the government’s power to enforce through general and prospective rules. She also advocates limiting government control over resources by prohibiting discrimination against individuals. These restrictions protect individual freedom from the power of government to coerce and control their lives.
Unlike the government, private entities are generally free to act as they wish, as long as they respect individual property and other rights. This freedom of private units generally does not force individuals as these units do not have the necessary monopoly power to do so. It is true that the monopoly seller of essential goods or services could violate people’s freedom by discriminating against certain people. The monopoly could do this by refusing to sell its product to a consumer unless the individual fails to take certain actions, such as practicing a religion or advocating a political position. Alternatively, the monopoly could refuse the individual to use his product to take certain actions, e.g. For example, not to allow people to ride a train to participate in certain activities. However, as long as there are a reasonable number of competing sellers, it is unlikely that a person would have to worry about such pressure as they can usually secure the services of at least one of the sellers.
While this limitation on monopoly power is important, in the big tech world, most corporations are unlikely to enjoy monopoly power. For example, the app stores on Apple and Android recently refused to run the Parler app. However, none of these providers has a full monopoly. Instead, the situation in the technology world often affects a small number of vendors – what is commonly referred to as an oligopoly.
Do classic liberal principles make it possible to apply a non-discrimination principle to oligopolistic markets? When the various sellers work together they behave like a monopoly and therefore cannot be discriminated against. Suppose three different salespeople act independently of each other. Can each of them be prohibited from discrimination?
The situation of people using big tech is similar to that of a monopoly consumer.
When all three sellers discriminate in the same way, a problem arises. From the buyer’s point of view, it doesn’t matter whether the sellers act together or not. If they do not serve people of certain religions or political views, their freedom will be restricted. Of course, the fact that there are three sellers makes them less likely to agree on such a matter, but doing so violates the buyer’s freedom.
The likelihood of three salespeople behaving in this way – all discriminating against the same behavior when the discrimination is largely independent of profit – depends on the circumstances. Salespeople are more likely to discriminate in this way when (1) people in the industry have a strong sense of a problem, (2) that view is widespread across the industry, (3) people are willing to take these beliefs too react (they are moral busy bodies) and (4) it is easy to determine which buyers are involved in the relevant behavior.
These circumstances will be different in different oligopolistic markets. While the oligopoly American auto industry of the 1960s was neither inclined nor easily able to refuse to sell cars to people whose actions it refused to act, those circumstances are very pronounced when it comes to political views in the technology industry. Hence, the situation for people using big tech is similar to that of a monopoly consumer. So it seems that classic liberal principles would allow a ban on discrimination to be applied to certain parts of the technology industry.
That ban wouldn’t stop the tech industry from taking most of the legitimate actions it is taking now. For example, platforms often work against harassment, false statements or threats of violence. They could continue to do so and pursue any policy they want as long as they are not politically biased. Twitter, for example, could not allow left-wing voices to threaten violence, while right-wing voices doing the same were banned. However, Twitter could ban threats of violence if the ban were applied impartially.
It should be recognized that in some cases this non-discrimination requirement can be difficult to manage. One question is whether Twitter actually treats left voices less strictly than right voices in the example above. Another question is how would one define discrimination, which can be difficult at times.
Even with this system, these costs can still be substantial. However, this cost is the price that would be paid to protect people from the coercion of monopolists and oligopolists in the particular circumstances currently prevailing in the technology industry.
In summary, it can be said that the reasons that justify the prohibition of discrimination by monopolists in classical liberalism often also justify the prohibition of discrimination against big tech based on political ideology. Such a ban would prevent big tech from forcing people to express their political views. While some classic liberals are still against a non-discrimination requirement based on politics, it cannot be argued that the requirement violates classic liberal principles.