A congressional letter of intimidation
Pro-abortion pressure on Big Tech reminds us why government can’t be trusted to police the internet
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When King Henry II of England decided he had had enough of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, he didn’t order him killed. Instead, he (perhaps apocryphally) asked his knights, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” The knights didn’t need to be told what to do. It’s a good career move to please the crown.
While obviously lacking the same murderous consequences, a group of 20 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to Google recently with a similar vibe.
Complaining that abortion-related search results also return hits for pregnancy resource centers staffed by volunteers providing women with abortion alternatives, diapers, car seats, and other practical resources, the letter asks Google to let the lawmakers know what action it will take to prioritize abortion.
The message is clear. Google is free to make its decisions. But one decision would please those who may decide the legal and regulatory context in which Google operates.
The letter, which derisively and without evidence refers to pro-life pregnancy centers as “fake clinics,” also complains about Google Maps. Here the lawmakers go beyond seeking information, telling the company flat out that it “should not be displaying anti-abortion fake clinics or crisis pregnancy centers in search results for users that are searching for an ‘abortion clinic’ or ‘abortion pill.’”
I am admittedly biased about pregnancy resource centers because I know something about them. I am pro-life and have spent a large part of my career defending and supporting their work. The roughly 3,000 pregnancy resource centers across the country are some of the best of what America represents: volunteers providing practical support to women facing a true crisis. It’s a shame that the authors of the letter continue to peddle misinformation about these volunteers’ work, even as they dare to complain about the problem of misinformation.
My organization, Americans for Prosperity, does not engage on the issue of abortion. But this isn’t really a debate about abortion. It’s a question of free speech and the potential for government to coerce private businesses into doing what government can’t.
This letter comes as Congress is considering legislation to weaponize antitrust law against social media companies and the Federal Trade Commission is being asked to block Elon Musk from purchasing Twitter. Politicians on both the right and left have advocated for new government powers to regulate content moderation online, and the Biden administration recently launched a quixotic effort to police online “disinformation.” In such light, this letter takes on an even more troubling tone.
This is an attempt by government to intimidate a company into censoring the speech of its opponents. It isn’t exactly ordering, but it is asking.
Government often illegitimately uses its “soft power” to coerce business, education, and private individuals to act in ways it wants. Conservatives should be especially wary of even well-intended attempts to give those same officials actual power to control social media and other institutions of society outside their reach.
The First Amendment expressly restricts only the government. Yet, for decades, some have sought to push religious expression out of the public square—to prohibit religious speech on public property and exclude religious speakers and organizations from participating on equal terms in public forums and programs.
Such actions invert the First Amendment, allowing government to prohibit citizen speech while claiming to embrace First Amendment values.
Some conservatives have recently been drawn to a similar flawed understanding of the First Amendment, arguing that Twitter is to be treated as a public entity. Thus, they seek government regulation of social media in ways that could violate freedom of speech.
We don’t need the government to treat us like children, settle every dispute for us, and tell us what to believe. If I don’t like Facebook’s policies, I can stop using Facebook. And government should have more faith in a woman’s ability to discern search results. Everyone is better served if consumers can make those choices for themselves.
Perhaps comparing this attempt to intimidate Google to the disagreement between Henry II and his old friend Becket gives the letter-writing lawmakers too much credit for subtlety.
Forget turbulent priests. This is mob-level intimidation. “Nice search engine you got there. It’d be terrible if something happened to it. Hey Joey, introduce your new friend here to our associate at the antitrust division.”
Members of Congress asking Google to censor speech they disagree with is wrong. Giving them the power to demand it would be far worse.
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