Big Tech companies are facing an existential crisis, but they are doing everything they can to resist it and keep things just as they are. Facebook and Google, in particular, want to keep playing three roles: essential infrastructure, publisher, and targeted-ad mogul. They want to be perceived as neutral platforms, while also being perceived as civically responsible, while also maximizing surveillance and the targeting of ads. That’s impossible—so the government has to force them to choose a new business model; or, rather, it has to choose for them.
Facebook and Google occupy an unprecedented political role. The closest we’ve come in America is the telegraph monopoly in the late 19th century, when the Associated Press and Western Union joined forces to control both news and the network through which it traveled. Facebook and Google are each like that monopoly, but combined with the surveillance regimes of authoritarian states, and the addiction business model of cigarettes. Not only do they control discourse, surveil citizens, and make money from incentivizing paranoia, hatred, and lies; they also make money by keeping the public addicted to their services. Traditional news organizations are dependent on them, and their profit stream takes directly from those traditional organizations, which, if allowed to thrive, might provide a connective tissue of facts for democracy. And these tech companies lack democratic accountability: A few corporate CEOs decide the shape of modern thought and have become America’s de facto commissioners of information.