It was 38 years ago this weekend when during Super Bowl XVIII, Apple debuted one of the most powerful and provocative ads of all time. “1984” opens with an army of clone-like humans marching into a theater to watch on a giant screen a menacing Big Brother figure glorifying the unification of thought:
Today we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives.
We have created for the first time in all history a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths.
Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth.
We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause.
Our enemies shall talk themselves to death and we will bury them with their own confusion.
We shall prevail!
The audience of clones is disrupted by a young athlete dashing into the theatre to hurl a sledgehammer onto the screen. Explosion. The ad ends with Apple announcing the introduction of its Macintosh: “You’ll see why 1984, won’t be like ‘1984.’”
Fast forward two generations later. Who is Big Brother now?
In its statement suspending Parler from its App Store, the twitter-like platform favored by conservatives, Apple said: “Parler has not taken adequate measures to address the proliferation of these threats to people’s safety.” First, we want to make clear that we don’t condone violence of any kind. But all social media platforms by their nature are vulnerable to harmful content, and conservatives have complained — long before the attack on the U.S. Capitol — that these platforms have zealously censored their non-threatening commentary while turning a blind eye to harmful content from the left.
Most recently, libertarian Ron Paul, a champion of free speech and outspoken critic of foreign wars, was blocked from his Facebook account after he posted an article criticizing Twitter’s ban on Donald Trump. Facebook later said they made a mistake. In 2019, Google banned an ad by our colleagues at the Claremont Institute. The ad was promoting its gala featuring thekeynote speaker, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Google explained that it too, had an oops moment. Meantime, menacing commentary from the left is allowed to proliferate on these platforms.
Policymakers have tried to do their part to keep the Internet an open forum for ideas. Section 230, a provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, was intended to protect Internet platforms from lawsuits if they made a good-faith effort to moderate third-party commentary. But the law has been turned on its head. From Justice Clarence Thomas: “many courts have construed the law [Section 230] broadly to confer sweeping immunity on some of the largest companies in the world.…Extending Section 230 immunity beyond the natural reading of the text can have serious consequences.”
The late 1980s and 1990s heralded the digital era when young entrepreneurs in hoodies, headquartered in garages, would revolutionize the way we live and work. With it came a culture that celebrated individualism, nonconformity, freedom and free speech. In the 21st century, many of those same anti-establishment entrepreneurs are now the establishment, ironically wielding their market power to silence the voices of people, groups, and companies who don’t subscribe to their views.
How the next Congress handles this issue is an open question. Some conservatives have argued for more regulation, even turning these platforms into a regulated utility. Libertarians and free-marketers on the other hand, are weary of government overreach. Californians only have to look at its consequences through their high utility bills and the Paradise catastrophe caused by PG&E.
We hope that lawmakers tread lightly, and that they rely more on market forces to punish companies that don’t meet consumers’ needs. While only a few big companies dominate the social media space now, recall that the vast number of companies that began the digital revolution such as AOL, Netscape, and Prodigy are now mentioned only in business school case studies. Indeed, I can see a day when, unceremoniously without any Superbowl half-time fanfare, my 20-year-old uber-techie couch potato-niece, tosses her phone into the backyard recycling bin.
Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of the Pacific Research Institute