In a politically fractured time, it can be tempting to cling to apparent consensus wherever traces of it can be found. That instinct is partly to blame for the increasingly common framing that constraining Big Tech’s privacy and antitrust violations has become a bipartisan priority. It’s certainly true that both Republican and Democratic politicians have become far more eager to yell in the general direction of tech companies like Facebook and Google. Conservatives have joined progressives in criticizing tech companies for their privacy practices, their disproportionate market power, and problems with algorithmic bias. But yelling seems to be roughly where the overlap ends. In the vast majority of cases, the two parties remain oceans apart on the substance of what regulating these companies should entail.
The parties’ disparate reactions to the Sprint–T-Mobile merger illustrate how stark the divide remains. A federal court approved the merger on Tuesday, in a lawsuit brought by 10 state attorneys general to block the Federal Communications Commission’s and Justice Department’s prior approval of it. (The companies still await possible appeal by the attorneys general and another decision from the California Public Utilities Commission.) T-Mobile and Sprint have repeatedly made rosy promises that a merger will lead to improved service (particularly in rural areas) and reduced consumer prices, promises that the FCC Republican commissioners, the Trump administration’s DOJ, and now a federal judge appear to buy.
But Democratic policymakers, consumer protection experts, and antitrust experts have vehemently contended that the merger will only make it easier for the companies to eliminate thousands of jobs and jack up prices for consumers, all without giving them any real reason to improve their networks. In addition to concerning procedural irregularities, the merger will bring the number of major mobile service providers from four to three (plus a propped-up Dish, which antitrust experts are skeptical will become a viable competitor), further consolidating an already anti-competitive sector and making it easier for those companies to gouge their customers.
Given the recent concerns raised by conservatives about privacy and competition, one might expect a more negative reaction to the Sprint–T-Mobile deal from Republicans, and a more skeptical treatment of the merger as it progressed from the FCC to the DOJ and eventually to a federal court challenge.
Instead, at every step of the way, the proposed merger has been rubber-stamped by Republicans and criticized by Democrats. In the wake of the court’s decision Tuesday, the DOJ issued a statement that it welcomed the judge’s decision, as did FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and conservative groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Democrats widely castigated the decision, while Republicans like Sens. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Marsha Blackburn, and Lindsey Graham, who’ve repeatedly and loudly raised concerns about the dominance of the Silicon Valley companies, were silent.
This reaction is (more or less) in lockstep with the Republican Party’s selective approach to Big Tech and the telecom companies, the latter of which have gotten nowhere near the heat from the right as the former. Yet they all engage in practices that raise the concerns conservatives have vocalized about companies headed by vest-wearing CEOs, like privacy, consolidation, and viewpoint censorship. (On the censorship point, it bears noting that there is no evidence for conservatives’ claims of bias on social media platforms and a range of evidence contradicting them, particularly given repeated demonstrations that the Silicon Valley companies are falling all over themselves to court Republican policymakers and mollify conservative critics.) Telecom companies have violated people’s privacy, do everything they can to stymie competitors, and have vigorously lobbied against rules that would require them to treat different speakers the same. Sprint and T-Mobile have engaged in many of these practices, including ones that the FCC majority itself has found to be illegal, and this merger will only allow them to get away with more.
A reasonable observer is left with a number of questions. If conservatives are truly worried about tech companies silencing viewpoints they don’t like, why did a Republican FCC majority repeal the net neutrality rules with enthusiastic support from conservative policymakers, when those rules required internet service providers to treat all speakers equally? If conservatives are really concerned about privacy online, why did they use the Congressional Review Act in 2017 to negate the FCC’s 2016 broadband privacy rules, which would have prevented ISPs from mining subscribers’ browsing history for valuable data without consent? If their top priority is children’s privacy and safety, why haven’t they been up in arms about the wireless carriers selling granular location data to whomever wanted to buy it, considering that almost 70 percent of kids under 12 carry a smartphone around with them?
The answer to these questions may not come as a galloping shock. There is frankly little evidence that conservative policymakers are concerned enough about any tech companies that they would take steps to limit them in ways that would protect people at the expense of corporate profits. That, ultimately, is the only measurement that really matters. The broad enthusiasm for the Sprint–T-Mobile merger among conservative policymakers and the failure of conservative tech critics to condemn it are two of many demonstrations that the right has no meaningful interest in constraining the powerful companies that control how we communicate. At the end of the day, the Trump DOJ that is investigating competition and children’s privacy in Big Tech is still the same DOJ that rubber-stamped the Sprint–T-Mobile merger, is led by a former Verizon lawyer, and whose antitrust chief recused himself from the Google antitrust investigation because he lobbied for the company during its acquisition of the ad-tech company DoubleClick.
I would love for Republican lawmakers to make me look like an idiot by supporting a strong comprehensive privacy law—rather than a Trojan horse paean to “notice and choice”—or by joining their Democratic colleagues in challenging this merger and others. I’ll also note that while criticism of the telecom companies comes almost exclusively from the left, many Democrats can also be blinkered in their focus on Silicon Valley companies over the telecoms, to their and consumers’ detriment. Nor is this a criticism of those trying to build coalitions with Republicans to enact strong privacy and competition reforms: I hope they succeed, and in certain areas, like regulating facial recognition technology, it just might work. Finally, if Republicans’ seemingly superficial loathing for the Silicon Valley tech companies somehow eventually leads to actual antitrust enforcement against them for their incessantly anti-competitive conduct, I’ll take it.
But telecom companies deserve the same scrutiny from both sides of the aisle that the Silicon Valley companies have drawn, and until conservatives’ tech proposals match their messaging, the media’s eager characterization of an incredibly modest, largely tonal shift as “bipartisan criticism of tech” gives too much credit for far too little. When Republican policymakers show any real willingness to support policies that change the ability and incentives for tech companies to exploit people, I’ll be the grand marshal of the parade I’ll throw for them. For now, privacy and antitrust reforms seem like they’ll remain as ideologically siloed as they’ve ever been—with one side actually trying to constrain corporate power, and the other screaming about purportedly conservative-hating algorithms just loud enough to clinch a prime-time spot on Fox News.