Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Big Tech, Big Brother

Silicon Valley venture capitalist David Sacks warns that the Machine is stealing our liberty
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A great interview by Bari Weiss, talking to the tech investor David Sacks about the threat Big Tech poses to our liberty. Excerpts:

BW: You have been making the case better than anyone else that, despite the fact that we live in a liberal democracy with a Bill of Rights and a Constitution and a First Amendment, whether most Americans are aware of it or not we also are living inside a soft version of a social credit system. So for the people who hear that and think: ‘That’s ridiculous. This isn’t China.’ I want you to make the case.

DS: Let’s start by defining what a social credit system is. A social credit system is a system that pretends to give you civil liberties and freedom. It doesn’t overtly send you to the gulag for expressing dissent. Rather, it conditions the benefits of society—economic benefits, the ability to spend your money—on having the correct opinions. If you don’t, then your ability to participate in online platforms is diminished or curtailed entirely. That’s the situation that we are gradually heading towards.

Back in the days when we were creating PayPal, in the early 2000s and late ‘90s, there was really a sense that technology and the internet would expand people’s ability to engage in speech and commerce. And for the first two decades of the internet, it really did. But for the last half-dozen years or so, we’ve really been restricting that access and trying to curtail it. The power of restricting people in both speech and commerce has taken on a life of its own. Those restrictions keep growing.

I’m not the one who’s changed. Big Tech changed. I didn’t leave Big Tech. Big Tech left me.

BW: When did you start to see the change?

DS: If you go back to the Arab Spring and the Green Revolution there was generally a sense of triumphalism. Back then, the CEO of Twitter said that we are the free speech wing of the free speech party. That’s how Silicon Valley saw itself. Ten years later, you have the widespread view that Silicon Valley needs to restrict and regulate disinformation and prevent free speech on its platform. You’d have to say that the turning point was 2016, when Trump got elected against the wishes of pretty much everyone in Silicon Valley. That was a little too much populism for them. And they saw social media as being complicit in Trump’s election.

BW: So the populism of the Arab Spring or in the Green Revolution was good. But the populism of Trump was not.

DS: Yes. It was a message they very much didn’t want to hear. So they began to believe that the message was somehow inauthentic. That it was engineered by Russian disinformation, and that their platforms had contributed to it and that they needed to crack down and restrict free speech so that it never happened again.

Regardless of what you think about Trump, I think that was just the wrong message to draw from that election. I think Trump won because, quite frankly, the Democrats fielded a horrible candidate. He narrowly won—it was less than a hundred thousand votes in a few key swing states in which Hillary Clinton barely campaigned. But rather than blame her or her campaign managers for running a bad campaign, they blamed social media and themselves for what happened and how. Since then, they have been backpedaling on the idea of free speech.

About debanking:

BW: It used to be that we’d hear a lot about deplatforming. Now, increasingly, we are hearing about debanking. What does it mean?

DS: It means that you are denied access to a financial service—your access to your money or to your ability to conduct a transaction or to pay people—based on your political views. All of that gets restricted because your views are deemed unacceptable by the people who run these services.

BW: Give us an example. Maybe we can use the company you helped build, PayPal, and its creation of what you’ve called their no-buy list, a play on the idea of a no-fly list.

DS: Back in the early days, we believed that our mission was to expand access to the financial system. Today PayPal, under new management, is working to deny people access. They’ve actually partnered with a couple of left-wing partisan groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, to create lists of users and groups to ban from the platform. They’ve actually announced this. They’re proud of this.

Now, these are groups with a storied history. I think they did very good work historically in the past.

BW: It’s the same phrase you used before. I didn’t leave the ADL, the ADL left me.

DS: Right, exactly. They used to be fairly bipartisan or nonpartisan in their denunciation of antisemitism. But the ADL has changed. It’s under new management, and they’ve broadened their portfolio from antisemitism to cover anything they consider to be hateful or extremist. And their definition of extremism is basically anything that disagrees with conventional Democratic Party politics or orthodoxy. So the ADL opposed the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. It basically partnered with Al Sharpton to boycott Facebook for allowing hate speech on their platform, which is pretty amazing given Al Sharpton’s history. The point is that the ADL now is using their historical capital and applying it to all these fairly conventional political debates. So when they partner with PayPal to create a list of banned groups or accounts, they’ve massively expanded the list of people who can be thrown off these services. If you just express a political opinion that dissents from the orthodoxy you can now be kicked off these platforms.

BW: I want to explain how we went, in such a short time, from people getting booted off of PayPal, for example, to governments wielding this power. A few weeks ago we saw massive protests in Canada of truckers who gathered in Ottawa and also at critical junctures of the border to protest Canada’s Covid mandates. What Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did is that he invoked something called the Emergencies Act, which allowed the Canadian government to issue a directive that required all kinds of financial institutions—banks, credit unions, even crypto wallets—to stop providing any financial or related services to anyone associated with the protests, even if they were nonviolent, which the vast majority of the protests were. So it didn’t matter if you were a protest leader or if you contributed $15 via GoFundMe, or even if you had sold a protestor a cup of coffee. Their accounts were frozen. Their money was stranded. They couldn’t use their credit cards. This is exactly what you have been warning us about, right?

DS: One of the most indefensible aspects of what Trudeau did is that the freezing of accounts was done retroactively. Meaning: at the time that the protesters engaged in their civil disobedience or the people donated to them, it was a perfectly legal activity. And yet their accounts were frozen based on having contributed in the past, again, at a time when it was completely legal. So what you had was not just the fact that you had this unprecedented expansion of aiding and abetting liability to anyone who contributed to the cause, but that that liability was being retroactively determined. In other words: anybody who had views that Justin Trudeau believed were unacceptable could be retroactively subjected to this punishment.

That precedent must have a chilling effect on speech moving forward. If, today, you are a citizen in Canada contemplating making a contribution to a political cause that you believe that Justin Trudeau doesn’t like, the precedent has been set that, at some point in the future, Trudeau could look back at that contribution and basically freeze your account for having made it in the past, even though it’s completely legal at the time that you do it. That’s one of the worst aspects of this whole thing. That’s going to have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to contribute to causes that Justin Trudeau doesn’t like.

More, from Sacks:

I think that the next Republican who’s going to be successful has to take a page out of TR’s playbook here and say: we do not represent the interests of these oligarchs and these big, powerful companies. We represent the interests of the working man and woman trying to have the right to free speech, to make a living, to conduct payments. And it should not be up to tech oligarchs to decide who has those rights.

Read it all. I can’t urge you strongly enough to read it all. There’s so much more there than what I’ve quoted, and it all has to do with our liberty, and how it is being very quickly taken from us. And if you click through, you can hear the whole podcast interview, which takes in a lot more stuff.

Of course this is Live Not By Lies stuff. You don’t have to believe the conservative Christian guy who is telling you this stuff. Believe David Sacks, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who helped build PayPal, Facebook, Twitter, and so many other tech giants. He knows. Elsewhere in the interview, Sacks points out how tech suppressed discussion of the China lab leak theory (which is now recognized as plausible), and the Hunter Biden laptop story (which, now that Uncle Joe is safely installed as president, they all now concede is true). “It starts with censoring somebody who’s widely hated saying outrageous things, but eventually it gets used on somebody who you yourself like,” Sacks says. “That’s what we’ve seen over the last several years. Censorship power keeps growing. It keeps getting applied to more and more cases.”

I’m writing this from a train in Hungary, going to the southern city of Szeged, where I’m giving a talk to students about Live Not By Lies and culture war. The acceleration of this conflict is palpable. The young people here are about five to ten years behind America, I think. Many of them are liberal, but they are pre-woke liberals, pre-Trump liberals. They have to be convinced of the danger, and to fight for liberties like free speech, and against cancel culture. There are still places in the West that have not yet been conquered. But they are few, and the hour is growing late.

One more thing: this Sacks interview and excerpts are one example of why I remain 100 percent behind Bari Weiss, even though we disagree on a lot, and even though she published that crappy Antonio Garcia Martinez essay attacking me and others on shallow grounds. She’s one of the bravest and most effective public voices we have now for liberty and against wokeness. I can’t repeat often enough what Kamila Bendova, the Catholic conservative anti-communist Czech activist whose husband was taken to jail, and whose apartment was bugged, told me: that courage is the rarest quality to find when standing up to totalitarianism, and you cannot afford the luxury of falling out with brave allies over relatively small things. And that AGM column was a relatively small thing. Hell, I’m not even mad at AGM over it.

UPDATE: Reader Dana Johnson comments:

Rod, let me repeat here a comment I made on another of your posts from some time ago:

I am in the tech (and in fact AI) space, and often find your views apocalyptic, but not in this instance.

The original vision of computer systems was of large, centralized machines that controlled information flow and storage, and would be used by the state to inform hard instruments of control. The PC revolution changed that image to that of a quasi-countercultural force. Data storage and processing moved onto your personal device, and privacy was inherent to the technological system. Cloud computing, the web, and the set of technologies that have become dominant in the last 20 years have moved us back to a system of centralized data storage in huge facilities and processing by central entities.

Networks + low cost data storage + low-cost electronic components + AI = distributed surveillance technology naturally embedded into the network, with a nearly infinite number of cameras, listening devices and text monitoring tools so widely distributed that even for someone who mostly avoids these technologies, where you go, who you see and what you do is captured and stored centrally. Low-cost data storage, processing and transmission means that economic transactions can be much more efficiently executed through this infrastructure. Again, even for someone who still uses cash or checks for some things (which is increasingly eccentric), what books, movies, food and clothes you buy, where you travel and with whom, what assets you have and where you have them and so on is also known centrally, and the medium of exchange itself is controlled centrally. It’s the old-time vision for information technology, just using new words.

A very small number of companies, that are exquisitely sensitive to political pressure, know where you are at almost all times (via your cell phone), who you are with (via their cell phones), what words you write or say (other than face-to-face), what books and newspapers you read, what websites you visit, what clothes you wear, and what movies you watch.

Money now exists for most people only as electronic entries in a register. Think of your bank account, 401K etc. They are numbers on a screen. The only reason you can trade them for clothes, dinners out, or a house is because of a set of agreements between payment processors. A mid-level bureaucrat at the Department of Treasury can prevent you from accessing “your money” almost immediately. Any one of a very short list of companies can make it almost impossible for you to trade “your money” for any goods or services. I don’t think most people have really confronted the implications of this. (This is of course one of the drivers of crypto as a movement, and I think there is a real role for crypto, but it is overblown as work-around for this problem.)

All of this makes control by a centralized authority an all-but-irresistible temptation to those with political power. Political leaders have always wanted to control the people. What has changed is that these technologies make it feasible to a much greater degree than has ever been true at this scale.