Why policymakers must act to preserve information freedom at home and abroadRoundup
tags: Cold War, democracy, capitalism, information
Diana Lemberg is associate professor of history at Lingnan University in Hong Kong and author of "Barriers Down: How American Power and Free-Flow Policies Shaped Global Media."
Topping the very short list of issues that many Democrats and Republicans can agree upon these days are two seemingly unrelated topics: tech regulation and Hong Kong. Political figures across the ideological spectrum, from Elizabeth Warren to Stephen K. Bannon, have criticized the power players of Silicon Valley for threatening free competition and other American values. Meanwhile, over the past several months the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which commits the United States to monitoring civil liberties in the semiautonomous Chinese city, sailed through a bitterly divided Congress and was signed into law by President Trump.
On the surface these two issues have little in common other than being rare displays of bipartisanship. But, in fact, they reveal a genuine consensus that lawmakers must act to preserve information freedom in an age of renascent monopoly capitalism and digitally abetted authoritarianism.
The tech industry also recognizes these issues as related, but disagrees on the solution. Mark Zuckerberg and others have argued that greater regulation at home — whether regarding cryptocurrencies or the content of deceptive political advertisements — would undermine the free-speech ideals of the United States. In this view, domestic regulation would undermine U.S. foreign policy goals, including its support of civil liberties in places like Hong Kong. This reasoning echoes that employed by American corporations during the Cold War, when U.S.-Soviet tensions gave them a convenient means of opposing regulation: by treating it as an un-American form of government control.
But for policymakers inclined to take Big Tech’s antiregulatory bromides with a grain of salt, the history of Cold War information policy reveals that regulation did happen, even in that climate, including provisions that demonstrated how regulation might enhance rather than threaten individual freedoms.
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