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.
Information has long played a part in foreign-policy debates — with the U.S. government typically opposing foreign interventions in the media business. In the austere decade after World War II, Washington rejected European proposals to regulate the market in scarce press materials like newsprint, painting the multilateral redistribution of these commodities as a threat to capitalism. Later, in the 1970s and early 1980s, Americans framed international support for the regulation of satellite transmissions as part of a Soviet-Third World attack on the free flow of information.
When foreign laws threatened their access to foreign markets, American cold warriors were quick to deride them in the ideological terms of freedom versus statism — just as Zuckerberg has done in the wake of his unsuccessful efforts to court the Chinese market.
During the Cold War, the case for press and media regulation and government intervention was often an easier sell abroad than at home. The French legal scholar Fernand Terrou argued in the early 1950s that the public interest might best be served by limited forms of government engagement in the media. For instance, severe newsprint shortages roiled Europe in the postwar years, causing many newspapers to shutter. Terrou contended that the solutions adopted by the French government — notably newsprint subsidies — did not mean it had abandoned the principle of press freedom. Rather, the regulations helped the French press remain viable in a time of economic turmoil.
And despite efforts to paint such legislation as a dangerous imposition, information was regulated in the Cold War United States, too. In the field of broadcasting, the Fairness Doctrine — instituted in 1949, at the nadir of U.S.-Soviet hostilities — gave the Federal Communications Commission a mandate to ensure the balanced presentation of political issues on radio and television. The federal government also pursued anti-monopoly action in the film and telecommunications industries and subsidies for public-interest media through the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.
In short, regulation has never been a bipolar issue of capitalism and democracy versus totalitarianism and state control. In 1951, Terrou, seeking to inject nuance into the Cold War dichotomy of free enterprise versus communism, pointed out that when one took a global perspective there was “great variety” in how broadcasting was regulated and “shades of meaning” in the jurisprudence around freedom of expression. This nuance was motivated by a sense that regulation could be in the public interest, and could enhance freedoms, as well as constricting them.
Likewise, present-day discussions of the regulation of social media in many countries — including the United States — are animated not by the desire to stifle freedom, but by a common concern for public goods including individual privacy and secure elections. There is a sense that regulation of social media is actually necessary to preserve freedom. After all, if these platforms are left unregulated, they will continue to be weaponized for illiberal ends, as Facebook was by the Russian government in the 2016 U.S. election or by Myanmar’s military in the recent ethnic cleansing of the country’s predominantly Muslim Rohingya population. These challenges are shared by liberal democracies around the world and suggest the value of dialogue around information issues, if not completely identical solutions.
Failing to engage in such dialogue may prove costly in the long run. Already, the United States has lost a step when it comes to defining the rules of the road on the use of personal data: E.U. privacy regulations have shaped similar legislation in countries as far off as South Africa and Japan, despite vigorous lobbying by Silicon Valley. Indeed, not only does the refusal to regulate social media actually threaten freedom at home, it may isolate us from our allies, in addition to obscuring potential approaches to our own information conundrums. Abroad as well as at home, what’s good for Facebook may not be what’s good for America.
Many tech leaders and China hawks today endorse the view that Washington is in a new cold war with Beijing. Whether this is a wise framework for contemporary Sino-U. S. relations, we should be leery of a return to the old Cold War playbook, by which American corporations battled domestic regulation in the name of free enterprise, and the United States government adopted this position in its foreign policy, opposing regulation abroad.
Washington should support the universal protection of information freedom and other civil liberties, at home as well as in Hong Kong and elsewhere. But policymakers should also remember how the U.S. used regulation to advance the public good during the Cold War, despite corporate resistance. The tech leadership of the future may entail greater dialogue and coordination across borders than is presently the case. The United States needs allies if it wishes to retain this leadership.