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The Anti-Tech Paradox: Those Fighting Internet ‘Gatekeepers’ May Enshrine Them in Law

Many of America’s leading tech firms are oftentimes accused of being the internet’s gatekeepers. The accusation is made by critics who argue these firms, like Google, Apple and Meta, have too much power over how Americans access the internet. Yet paradoxically, many of these critics are simultaneously advocating for policies that would, in effect, turn these companies into the official gatekeepers of America’s internet and give them power to control who is allowed online and what they are allowed to see.

While often misplaced, concerns about the internet being controlled by digital gatekeepers stems from an honorable place. The internet, a digital world of opportunity and information in abundance, should be a place individuals and families are free to navigate and use as they see fit. Whether reading the news, chatting with friends, or discovering a new hobby, users should be in the driver’s seat when it comes to how they access the internet.

For many around the world, the internet has been the last bastion of freedom in too often unfree countries. Sadly, as those living under authoritarian regimes are all too familiar, that freedom is being throttled. Governments have discovered ways to control who and what is allowed on the domestic version of the internet, deleting dissent and imprisoning opponents.

This desire for a more centrally-controlled internet is not restricted to the globe’s dictators. Europe has loudly lauded itself for passing sweeping restrictions on online speech through the Digital Services Act, which includes government diktat about what speech is “harmful” and how it should be removed. The law follows a growing European tradition of allowing the government to outlaw any speech it deems too offensive or upsetting for the public to see.

At home in the U.S., the Supreme Court could be deciding whether our own government has acted illegally by going too far in its attempts to control online speech and behavior, and many are increasingly concerned about how much power the government has over the internet. 

Yet some of the very critics who chastise tech firms as internet gatekeepers are the very same who support the government enforcing licensing regimes that would cement those very firms as absolute gatekeepers of the internet. You read that right: those criticizing so-called centralized power over the internet are some of the loudest voices that support mandating a licensing regime for getting online. 

These varying proposals take different forms, but all commonly hold the same idea—that the government should force tech firms to verify the age and identity of users before they access digital services. For example, a leading proposal right now includes mandating that app stores or devices confirm and store users’ identities and ages before they can get online.

Such measures would, at the government’s mandate, turn America’s tech firms into legally-obligated gatekeepers, deciding who is allowed on the internet and what version of it they are allowed to see.

This irony is stark: the very voices opposing the concentration of power online are inadvertently championing policies that would mandate that power be concentrated.

Champions of these digital licensing regimes say they only want to stop young people from accessing “harmful” content online. Unfortunately, there appears to be no appreciation that once such a licensing regime exists, it will eventually be used to centralize control of the internet in far more dark and concerning ways. For one, parents and politicians often have widely differing beliefs on what is “harmful.” 

We should all be concerned that such a regime would give the government unprecedented power to forever change the internet and how it operates. An American internet where access and content is determined by government regulation is shockingly similar in principle to China’s surveillance net. The difference is only how long the leash is.

Make no mistake, the debate over whether tech companies should ID everyone before they can access the internet isn’t a disagreement over whether kids and young people need to be protected from harm. Obviously, they should be. This is a fundamental debate about who should control your experience online. Should it be governed by centralized regulators and government mandates? Or should it remain in the hands of individuals and families? 

We at NetChoice believe in the intelligence, capabilities and power of Americans and our families to determine what works best for our individual needs and preferences.

In an increasingly digital world, maintaining American freedom means protecting a free and open internet. Citizens concerned about their civil liberties should maintain a vigilant eye on the very real unintended consequences of well-meaning regulations and the fundamental shifts in power they entail.