How the Republicans fell out of love with oh-so-progressive Silicon Valley
Such is the state of Mark Zuckerberg’s life that the ignominy of spending 10 hours sitting on a big-boy cushion was not the worst part of his week. That came from dozens of Republican members of Congress, who had no time for his carefully rehearsed defences of internal monitoring and political neutrality. Tripping over answers about the definition of hate speech and looking even younger than his scant years, he was watched by the world as he swallowed his burgeoning political ambitions (and plenty of water).
At first glance, it might seem odd that Mr Zuckerberg’s harshest critics came from the Republican side of the aisle. The GOP, after all, is the business-friendly party, always arguing for a mode of governance that leaves businesses alone and allows them and their shareholders to hold onto as much profit as possible. Even though Republicans take about as much money as Democrats from private companies, they’re more reliably lampooned as being “in the pocket” of big business – and big business doesn’t get much bigger than Silicon Valley. What worry is it of ours how Facebook regulates speech in its domain? What happened to “corporations are people, my friend”?
The key to understanding Mr Zuckerberg’s rough ride is twofold: money and history, those two great determinants of why and how things are done in Washington. After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which granted untrammelled rights of speech to corporations, the line between business and politics has been almost erased. Companies and unions can give unlimited sums to political action campaigns, which are in turn allowed to support political candidates. While American business has always lobbied for specific policy outcomes and regulatory objectives, it used to limit itself to areas of selfinterest. Now, indeed like people, corporations are getting into a wider range of issues.
This shift was accelerated by social media itself. Through platforms like Facebook, individuals can now publicly shun companies that don’t “reflect their values”. Activist campaigns form and spread with unprecedented speed. Companies, in turn, got savvy and hired social media teams who would mock those who posted comments outside the new bounds of acceptable discourse. On the playground, we would call that bullying – but in this age of clickbait virtue-signalling, it’s good PR.
The result has been the unnecessary politicisation of business. On the Right and Left, private companies engage in social debates (like gay marriage) which have nothing to do with their day-to-day, profitmaking activities. Nowhere has this been more true than in Silicon Valley, whose companies seek to promote lifestyles, not products. What constitutes an “acceptable” way of living one’s life, of interacting with others and even of thinking, has been narrowed, in recent years, by companies like Facebook.
But this episode was about more than Republicans being unhappy that tech companies have helped to shift most of corporate America leftward (to
at telegraph.co.uk/ opinion the detriment of GOP coffers). Politics aside, the party has a long history of mistrusting any concentration of power. America was founded as an escape mechanism for those oppressed by capricious monarchs with unrivalled political and economic sway. Modern Republican ideology stems from the institutional memory of what can go wrong when we have no mechanism to hold powerful people to account. For all we respect and value private enterprise, Mr Zuckerberg’s power to define free speech – which matches any federal judge, and maybe even the Supreme Court – makes us duly nervous.
Breaking up monopolies is in Republicans’ blood. Teddy Roosevelt, one of the greatest presidents and a hero of the party, trust-busted his way into the 20th century and set the tone for how the US would handle competition policy. The impulse to monopolise is an essential component of capitalism – why go into business unless you believe that you can and will be the best at what you do? But the actual achievement of a horizontal monopoly is rightfully considered unacceptable by a party primarily concerned with individual liberty.
We did not need the 2016 election to know that Facebook has an outsized influence on our national conversation, just as we did not need the revelation that its profits often come from selling the data of its users to know that its intentions are not utopian. If the Democrats are too cowed to do so, then let us celebrate Republicans for standing up in defence of those people in whom Facebook can see only dollar signs.
Molly Kiniry is a researcher at the Legatum Institute
Britain’s new homes aren’t as small as they’re made out to be. That’s not the journalistic equivalent of estate agent patter, but a more accurate assessment of the average size of the country’s houses than the endless reports about “rabbit hutch Britain”, including research last week that misleadingly said that new homes now are smaller than they’ve been for decades.
The truth may be far more invidious. While newer homes are, in fact, larger than older ones on average, that hides a divergence between top and bottom. Analysis by housing expert Neal Hudson found that “a large number of smaller new-build homes (most likely flats) [was] counterbalanced by a sizeable proportion of much larger homes. Relative to the existing stock there are far fewer homes in the middle”. So more big, fewer of mid-size, and more flats. Although he was writing in 2015, it’s doubtful that the situation has changed dramatically.
Housing is an issue profuse with statistics: targets, mortgage rates, percentage of owner-occupiers and, of course, prices. Almost never discussed is type, and aside from the question of whether they can buy in the first place, this is what most exercises those in my peer group, as well as older people who struggle to find more appropriate homes in the areas they already live in.
Flats abound, which is fine for big cities where space is tight, but the
For all we respect and value private enterprise, Zuckerberg’s power to define free speech – which matches any federal judge, and maybe even the Supreme Court – makes us duly nervous
What will Britain look like if, instead of living in semidetached homes, we live more and more in flats?
at telegraph.co.uk/ opinion