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Author: Stephen Kent

The DOJ’s Antitrust Case Against Apple is an Attack on Consumer Preference

The war between the US federal government and Big Tech continues. The next chapter pits the Biden Department of Justice (DOJ) under Merrick Garland against Apple, wherein the DOJ has accusedAmerica’s most innovative consumer brand of sweeping antitrust violations. This allegation of anticompetitive conduct deserves intense scrutiny. Apple is a wildly successful consumer tech brand that inspires consumer loyalty like no other tech. So what’s the problem?

At the heart of the DOJ’s lawsuit is the claim that Apple has stifled competition by building barriers that prevent competitors from both entering the smartphone market and functioning on Apple’s platform. 

The Apple Watch is part of the DOJ’s case. They’ve argued that Apple doesn’t accommodate smartwatches from other providers to sync to iPhones and Macbooks. This is a strange line of attack. 

As I wrote in The Hill weeks before the case was unveiled:

“Imagine the classroom slacker making the case to the teacher that the straight-A student in the front of the class is being anti-competitive by not sharing their lecture notes with them. It’s one thing to maliciously penalize or seek to inconvenience consumers for having a mixed assortment of technology from Apple, LG, Samsung, Nokia and Google. It’s another thing entirely for the government to say that Apple has to design its products for Samsung to piggyback on and then offer to their loyal customers as a perk of not doing business with Apple. Investigators are spending taxpayer dollars to find out why the Apple Watch works more smoothly with the iPhone than with rival brands.”

It it not anticompetitive to not build products with your competitors in mind. It may limit the appeal of your product, your walled garden where each Apple device syncs nicely with another. That’s why I’ve said “Apple is a lifestyle brand.” This approach has made Apple very popular with consumers. 

One of the other key grievances outlined in the lawsuit is Apple’s control over its App Store, which critics argue gives the company an unfair advantage over rivals. However, what these critics fail to acknowledge is that Apple’s stringent App Store guidelines are designed to uphold the highest standards of quality and security for users.

An Apple user can feel comfortable and confident knowing that there is not malware and illicit apps on the App Store. It is more tightly controlled. That is to consumers benefits, though it may frustrate app developers, game makers and tech competitors. 

Apple’s ecosystem is not a nefarious scheme to lock users into its products but rather a testament to the company’s unwavering commitment to user privacy and data security. And make no mistake, the data security and privacy component of Apple’s brand has put them in an adversarial position with the Department of Justice and Homeland Security before. Are we supposed to believe this factor is not part of the DOJ’s motivation? 

Unlike other tech giants that have come under fire for their lax approach to privacy, Apple has consistently prioritized the protection of user data, even if it means sacrificing some degree of interoperability with third-party devices and services. This principled stance should be commended, not condemned, particularly in an era marked by rampant data breaches and privacy violations. Apple does good by consumers. 

In responding to the lawsuit, Apple pointed out that the DOJ’s actions threaten to undermine the company principles that have made its products synonymous with quality and innovation. At the Consumer Choice Center, we are inclined to agree. Consumers have ample market power to use other devices and mix and match as they please. There is more to this DOJ attack on Apple than meets the eye, and you can bet it has little to do with consumer welfare.

Originally published here

DOJ’s Apple “monopoly” lawsuit is an attack on consumer preference

Washington, D.C. – Today the DOJ unveiled its long-awaited antitrust lawsuit against Apple, alleging that Apple maintains an “illegal monopoly” over the smartphone industry.  

“This is a very extreme position being taken by Merrick Garland’s DOJ, said Stephen Kent, media director of the Consumer Choice Center, “The lawsuit claims that Apple throttles the use of third-party messaging apps despite ample evidence that millions of tech consumers have a wide range of choice for powerful messaging apps that rival the experience of iMessage.”

** Read Stephen Kent in The Hill on DOJ’s weak case against Apple **

The lawsuit also asserts that Apple limits the connectivity of certain competitor devices such as smartwatches, favoring Apple devices in their own ecosystem of technology. 

Kent continued, “DOJ is arguing that consumers are wrong to like Apple products and how they sync so nicely with one another. Apple is a fully integrated system of tech and lifestyle brand. For the government to say Apple must build technology to accommodate its competitors at the expense of their user experience, is a huge stretch for antitrust law. This reminds me of the FTC’s witch hunt against Microsoft & Activision/Blizzard, where the US government appeared to be working on behalf of Sony to stop a pro-consumer merger. Apple’s competitors should make products more consumers enjoy the way consumers enjoy Apple.” 

The Consumer Choice Center stands for consumers’ right to choose between products in a fair, competitive, and open market. It is unclear how the government’s case against Apple would unleash competition and innovation in the smartphone sector. 

** Read Yael Ossowski in The Hill on Apple’s “green bubble” text controversy **

If anything,” Stephen Kent concluded, “This case will simply lower the bar for smartphone tech and user experience in the US, rather than improving consumer access to technology. Let Apple be Apple.” 

The CCC represents consumers in over 100 countries across the globe. We closely monitor regulatory trends in Washington, D.C., Ottawa, Brussels, Geneva, and other hotspots of regulation and inform and activate consumers to fight for  Consumer Choice. Learn more at consumerchoicecenter.org

Biden’s ‘Junk’ Fees Rule Will Not Help Consumers With Credit Card Debt

A rule released today by the Biden Administration and federal regulators at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), to cap credit card late fees at $8 is of great concern to the Consumer Choice Center (CCC). Any intention to improve the consumer experience through well-informed and economically sound regulation is commendable, but this new rule is anything but. 

“The CFPB argues that the 55 million consumers who are charged late fees on credit cards each year stand to now save up to $220 per year. This talking point from the administration completely ignores how consumers will be more incentivized to spend beyond their means and increase their overall debt levels,” said Dr. Kimberlee Josephson, Professor of Business at Lebanon Valley College and a Research Fellow with the Consumer Choice Center. 

Unintended consequences will follow this new Biden Administration rule, such as higher credit card interest rates, less availability of credit, and higher annual fees. By specifically targeting large credit card issuers with more than 1 million accounts, where roughly 95% of the total outstanding credit card debt is held, the regulation will inadvertently harm the very consumers it claims to protect. 

As Dr. Kimberlee Josephson wrote at FEE.org [Foundation for Economic Education], similar financial regulations on fees in recent history resulted in, “90 percent of banks raising their costs for consumers and restricting rewards programs for patrons, to make up for the loss incurred by the interchange fee caps. Consumers who previously enjoyed accruing points or getting cashback on their purchases were now unable to do so. Many banks did away with free checking accounts, which hurt lower-income households the most.”

As advocates for consumer choice and market-driven solutions, the Consumer Choice Center supports a balanced regulatory approach that takes both economic reality and consumers’ financial well-being into account. Consumers deserve a competitive credit market with clear and transparent terms, as well as broad availability of credit with dynamic rewards programs and fair interest rates. 

“The more the government meddles in the financial sector, the less market-driven the system becomes for consumers. This may be good short-term politics for President Biden, but sound economics don’t change, and consumers will pay more in the long run,” concluded Dr. Josephson. 

The best smartphones for teens to stay connected and protected

When Republicans and Democrats come together on something in Washington, D.C., rest assured that it’s an expansion of their power at the expense of yours. The Kids Online Safety Act, sponsored by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), now boasts 62 Senate cosponsors, making it very likely to pass in the coming weeks.

KOSA and similar age-verification laws sweeping the nation require platforms to collect personal information such as a driver’s license, Social Security number, or birth certificate to verify the user’s age. In the case of minors, parental consent involves sharing sensitive information for safekeeping by Big Tech companies.

Read the full text here

California’s next freedom to lose: speeding

There are perfectly practical reasons to study philosophy. That’s what I told my teenage daughter when she came to me with mild complaints about her reading assignments of Plato and C.S. Lewis, for a unit on free will and virtue. Far from being a luxury for elites with liberal arts degrees, everyday Americans gain from even the most basic philosophical study a reason behind the freedoms they enjoy. Why are you ever free to do anything potentially harmful or dangerous, at all? 

In California, a state famous for protecting the freedom to do hard drugs in public and live beneath overpasses or in public parks, State Senator Scott Wiener has proposed a set of bills aimed at reducing traffic-related deaths. The Speeding and Fatality Emergency Reduction on California Streets package (SAFER) would include mandatory speed governor devices that would halt vehicles from driving 10mph over the speed limit. 

What makes studying philosophy so challenging is that the examples of good and evil, right and wrong, are often so dramatic that it feels abstract to the point of being useless. But as I was looking over my child’s work and seeing this news about California car regulations, I recognized this as an approachable example of why choice matters in a free society. 

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Wiener reasoned his bill by saying, “There’s no reason why people should routinely be allowed to drive more than ten miles per hour above the speed limit.”

Wiener just wants what is best for the community as a whole, and the European Union agrees. The EU already passed legislation requiring speed governor devices across all member countries starting this July. Tough luck for James Bond next time the bad guys are getting away. 

If passed into law, California would see built-in speed governors starting in 2027. The devices would utilize GPS and exterior cameras to assess the speed limits in whatever area you’re in, adjusting the max speed of the car or truck accordingly. 

Senator Scott Wiener’s comments about what Californians should be able to do are important and philosophical in their own right. He goes on to say to the LA Times, “You can want whatever you want. But that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to do it.”

That’s true. You can drive and ride inside a vehicle without a seatbelt if you choose, but it is prohibited by law. If you’re caught, you will be ticketed and fined. New York was the first state to cross this Rubicon in 1984 when it mandated the use of seatbelts in cars. California banned drinking and driving before cars were even common on American streets in the early twentieth century.

There are hilarious videos from 1980s news coverage showing citizens’ reactions to new seatbelt laws, as well as ones against drinking behind the wheel. 

Read the full text here

Let Apple be Apple — consumers don’t need DOJ intervention 

Apple is a lifestyle brand. The $2.8 trillion company, founded by Ronald Wayne, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, is known to the world as an innovator in consumer technology, but using Apple products is widely seen as a lifestyle choice embraced by consumers. 

I’m an Apple guy. My devices are all synced, from the iPhone to the Macbook Pro, the Apple Watch and the HomePod mini. No one coerced me into this way of living, but that hasn’t stopped the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) from investigating Apple and concocting yet another vast antitrust case against an American company.  

As of today, President Biden’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken Amazon and Meta to court over alleged anti-competitive practices, and the DOJ has hit Google with two antitrust suits targeting Google Search and their ad services. According to The New York Times, the DOJ is still calculating whether or not to bring its multipronged antitrust complaint against Apple.  

What stands out in the Times’s report on the investigation is that it reads like Apple’s competitors are behind the steering wheel of their very own government agency. David McCabe and Tripp Mickle write, “Rivals have said that they have been denied access to key Apple features, like the Siri virtual assistant, prompting them to argue the practices are anticompetitive.”  

Imagine the classroom slacker making the case to the teacher that the straight-A student in the front of the class is being anti-competitive by not sharing their lecture notes with them.  

It’s one thing to maliciously penalize or seek to inconvenience consumers for having a mixed assortment of technology from Apple, LG, Samsung, Nokia and Google. It’s another thing entirely for the government to say that Apple has to design its products for Samsung to piggyback on and then offer to their loyal customers as a perk of not doing business with Apple. Investigators are spending taxpayer dollars to find out why the Apple Watch works more smoothly with the iPhone than with rival brands.  

Does the DOJ work for Samsung or the American people?  

This mindset is exactly what went wrong in court for FTC chair Lina Khan when she threw the once-relevant consumer protection agency between the Microsoft and Activision-Blizzard merger, a case that District Court Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley indicated seemed to be a benefit to Sony, a Japanese firm, more than American consumers. 

None of this is to say Apple is a perfect company, or that it’s behaved like a free enterprise angel throughout every aspect of its business. It hasn’t. Its long-time reliance on manufacturing and investments in China, and how that steers its business, is a big one. But that Apple makes intentionally integrated products that foster brand loyalty and consumer satisfaction is special in the landscape of American tech. Apple is a seamless experience for consumers like myself who are not huge techies, but rather novices who place a premium on convenience and ease of use. 

The reality for Apple is that it operates in a global marketplace with different rules of the road on almost every continent. The European Union is very close to forcing open Apple’s App Store model to allow for third-party app stores on their devices, a provision of the 2022 Digital Markets Act. The EU has also directed its regulatory energies on requiring device manufacturers to have a universal charging port, further removing design distinctions between major tech brands.  

In the United States, Apple narrowly fended off the maker of Fortnite, Epic Games, in a high-profile lawsuit contending Apple held an unfair monopoly over payment processing for in-app purchases. The case failed when the courts correctly acknowledged that Apple does not hold a monopoly in the mobile games market. 

Tech firms may all be united in that they are the target of never-before-seen political scrutiny in Washington, but they are still competitors. You can see this in how they fight government regulation of their business with one hand, and request government help in slowing down their competition with the other. 

Meta reportedly “encouraged” the Justice Department to look into Apple’s new consumer privacy tool, App Tracking Transparency, which empowers iPhone owners to customize and cut off data collection by advertisers of their choosing. It is not a coincidence that Meta anticipates a $10 billion loss in revenue from this useful tool Apple designed for consumers concerned with privacy.  

None of this is new. Successful companies and established industries have always sought to use the federal government as both a cudgel and a shield to protect their interests. For those of us chiefly concerned with consumer satisfaction and welfare, there is no temptation to choose winners and losers in the market.  

Let Apple be Apple, and let consumers choose.  

Originally published here

New Trade Boss Is Same as the Old Trade Boss

President Biden places a significant premium on creating contrast with his predecessor, Donald Trump. However, regarding tariffs on certain imports, the plan is to keep things more or less the same. 

Recent reports indicate that the Biden administration is evaluating $300 billion worth of Chinese goods that Trump saddled with tariffs using Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. Consumers will eat the costs, as they always do with protectionist policies. And it doesn’t seem to matter which party consumers vote for.

Inflation has been gradually cooling in the United States, offering consumers some much-needed relief after 2022 saw declines in household earnings due to higher prices. The easing of inflation has given Biden what he thinks is political wiggle room to further ding China on trade, bolstering his image with voters as tough on a foreign rival.

This is not how a free market economy is meant to work. An election year shouldn’t deliver higher consumer prices on select goods that don’t make the president’s Nice List. Electric vehicles with Chinese components and mineral-based products will remain artificially more expensive if tariffs continue and may even see an increase if Biden opts to turn the screws even tighter.

It’s a puzzling move for an administration that has touted fighting climate change as America’s most critical national security imperative, as tariffs will also inflate the price of clean energy technology. Consumers will flock to electric vehicles when the price is right and the reliability of the tech increases.

Tariffs will also contribute to disruptions in an already crisis-plagued global supply chain. Military operations against Iran-backed Houthi pirates in the Red Sea are blowing up the logistics of commercial shipping vessels worldwide. Roughly 30 percent of the world’s container shipments move through the Suez Canal, and the security risk has doubled shipping times and, in turn, will raise consumer prices.

Breakdowns in diplomatic relations and military primacy in strategic regions like the Red Sea or South China Sea do not come without consequence for Americans and their pocketbooks.

Research from the American Action Forum in 2023 found that the cost of tariffs was passed on to consumers to the tune of $48 billion since being implemented by  Trump. That Biden would knowingly continue with this policy to score points looking tough with the Chinese is an insult to every American struggling to keep up with the costs of living.

Instead of resorting to steeper tariffs, the Biden administration is focused on lowering the cost of doing business in America for domestic industries. Blanket tariffs do little more than sweep larger economic problems under the rug for the next administration to find. The problem with dirt under the rug is that the next guy probably won’t sweep it up, and the losers are American consumers.

Originally published here

Disney latest blue-stater to flee to North Carolina; not all feel the ‘magic’

The Walt Disney Company pitches its sprawling Storyliving community as a boon for tiny Pittsboro, N.C., but it’s got some locals saying, “There goes the neighborhood.”

“The world is tough, it’s getting tougher, and therefore we need a sanctuary, a place where it doesn’t feel like you’re just getting by or surviving life, but really living.” So went Waystar RoyCo scion Kendall Roy’s pitch for luxe assisted living community Living+.

Like many of the vaguely dystopian ventures dreamed up by the “Succession” writing staff, Living+ took inspiration from reality: plans by the Walt Disney Company to expand its parks and resort experience to residential and retirement communities under the brand Storyliving. Imagine the best of Disney World mixed with the pleasing aesthetics and predictability of Seahaven Island in Jim Carrey’s “The Truman Show.” Doesn’t that sound magical?

It depends whom you ask. Disney chose the California desert for its first Storyliving community. Named Cotino, the project is currently in presales. The company will be heading east for the sequel, which it calls Asteria. When Disney announced its plan to break ground in Pittsboro, a quaint town in North Carolina’s Chatham County, local developers reacted with enthusiasm. Chatham County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Dasher’s statement is exemplary:

We are excited to learn that Storyliving by Disney selected Pittsboro, North Carolina, for its second residential community in the United States. Chatham County looks forward to working with the Town of Pittsboro, Disney, Chatham Park, and DMB Development as the Asteria community comes to life in the coming years,” Dasher continued, “This announcement is the latest major economic development project to choose Chatham County. We are thrilled about the innovative and unique lifestyle that this community will offer our residents as well as a variety of great jobs for our local and regional workforce.

Another win for the region

Dasher’s optimism makes sense. North Carolina has been notching a lot of wins lately in the nationwide race for jobs, economic development, and new residents (primarily disenchanted blue-state refugees seeking the southeast’s lower taxes and cost of living). The Raleigh-Durham area alone (Pittsboro is about 30 miles from Raleigh-Durham Airport) has attracted investment from Wolfspeed (semiconductors), VinFast (EV cars), Boom Supersonic (aviation), Toyota, and Apple. With Disney’s addition to the list, the future seems bright indeed.

Moreover, the pitch for Storyliving makes it sound like just the kind of development an up-and-coming area like Chatham county should encourage. Disney promises a blend of metropolitan amenities with a small-town atmosphere, complemented by ample parks and extensive trails for walking and biking. The development will feature over 4,000 units for single-family and multi-family homes, with designated neighborhoods for residents ages 55 and up. Sales for homes within this Disney utopia are expected to commence by 2027 and cover 1,500 acres in Pittsboro, Chatham County, forming part of the larger Chatham Park community.

Magic or tragic?

For the people who will actually live with Asteria, the story is more complicated. I grew up in Chatham County. Pittsboro, the county seat, has a population of just 4,537. This is an area where the town’s police department is supported by fewer than a dozen patrolmen and officers. Not much is going on there, and people there like it that way.

Take my high school friend Eileen, who lives in Pittsboro and is far more pessimistic about the Mouse House coming to town. “We [already] have a huge issue with water pollution, mostly from Greensboro, N.C. There are also several upscale housing developments here that are unpopulated – with a great need for affordable housing.”

Asteria is unlikely to fill that need. While residents of Pittsboro can expect ample opportunity to work within the community, owning a piece of it will be out of reach for most. The county’s median annual income sits around $50,000-$75,000; a house in a Asteria should go for 20 times that figure, if the $1-2 million price tags for Cotina living are anything to go by.

Nosy neighbor

Disney may also bring with it the same baggage it brought to Florida: contentious politics. The state’s solidly Republican legislature will have a skeptical eye on this utopian community so near the state’s capital, and government watchdogs should be tracking any efforts by the state to subsidize Disney’s new colony. North Carolina participated in the rat race for Amazon HQ2 by offering up $2.2 billion in subsidies for the corporation, but in the end, it did not outbid NYC and Northern Virginia.

These days, of course, Disney’s controversies extend well beyond matters of municipal tax policy. Will the same obsession with DEI and “woke” that tarnished Disney+ and Disney parks come to Asteria? Recent SEC filings show that the company knows all too well that it has been alienating its fan base: “Consumers’ perceptions of our position on matters of public interest, including our efforts to achieve certain of our environmental and social goals, often differ widely and present risks to our reputation and brands.”

But that doesn’t necessarily sound like the company has plans to change course. And including “fostering a culture of lifelong learning” in its goals for Asteria does sound an ominous note, given what passes for “learning” in 2023. At the very least, locals might want prepare themselves for some truly epic HOA-type battles.

Originally published here

Rand Paul’s AM radio amendment gets consumer choice right

Is it the job of the federal government to ensure that AM radio lives to see another century? According to Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who introduced the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act back in May, the government must ensure auto manufacturers keep AM radio technology built into next-generation vehicles. 

Like the consumers who drive them, cars change with time. They change to keep up with the expectations and demonstrated preferences of consumers. That’s why Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has offered an amendmentto the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act that would remove the AM radio mandate and nix the electric vehicle tax credit within it that subsidizes EV purchases. He is right to do so.

You might recall, as I do, when every decent station wagon in America had a cigarette lighter, ashtray, and cassette player. My 1992 Ford Taurus station wagon certainly did. Of course, by this time in my life, CDs were the standard for listening to music in the car. Gas stations in the early 2000s sold portable CD players to tape cassette adapters that allowed drivers of older cars like me to plug their Discman into the car’s stereo system.

It leads me to wonder if the cassette tape industry had lobbyists fighting for their survival in Washington, D.C., like the radio broadcasters do with the National Association of Broadcasters backing Markey’s bill.

The AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act has amassed 43 co-sponsors, including Democrats such as Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Bob Casey (D-PA), as well as Republicans such as Sens. John Hoeven (R-ND) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA). Democrats tend to support this measure in the name of public safety, citing AM radio’s importance for emergency notifications such as the kind that could have saved lives during the recentHawaii wildfires. 

Automakers say the AM frequencies create buzzing noises and faded signals within their newer EVs. The technologies aren’t mixing well.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) sought unanimous consent for the legislation, which would have the Department of Transportation mandate AM radio access in all new motor vehicles manufactured and sold in the U.S. Paul’s objection and amendment throws the bill back into standard Senate procedure, which allows for amendments and a final vote.

The subject is divisive for libertarian Republicans such as Paul and his more conservative colleagues such as Cruz who view preserving AM radio as a free speech cause. “I believe these automakers stood up to remove AM radio as part of a broader pattern we see of censoring views that are disfavored by Big Business,” Cruz remarked. “I think this is consistent with what Big Tech has done, silencing views they disagree with. And so this bill is all about preserving consumer choice — letting consumers decide.”

This makes little sense. Consumer choice is not about putting anything and everything in a car that consumers could want. Mandating the inclusion of a Red Bull cooler beneath the glove compartment isn’t suddenly a matter of consumer choice because the driver can choose whether or not they want a Red Bull to drink. Auto manufacturers are keenly aware of what drivers of new cars value, and it is not AM radio.

Cruz’s desire to make automobile design standards a part of the culture war is disingenuous and a betrayal of limited government principles.

Consumers can hear Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Buck Sexton anytime they want on smartphones using iHeartRadio apps, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and a long list of other options. The idea that a consumer buying a 2024 Tesla or Toyota won’t also have a smartphone armed with these capabilities is laughable.

For drivers who place traditional radio atop their list of concerns, there are used car lots for a reason.

However, Republican politicians understand that there are progressive forces in Washington that seek to limit access to older model gas vehicles and gradually regulate them out of the market. In such an event, regulators would force all consumers into new EV cars in the name of environmental metrics, while simultaneously quieting the noise of their likely critics on talk radio.

That’s why the Consumer Choice Center exists, and we’re in the fight for choice to ensure that kind of outcome isn’t possible. But Cruz is not helping by muddying the meaning of consumer choice with efforts to protect legacy industries such as AM radio on behalf of the broadcasters.

Originally published here

Nikki Haley’s lack of faith in free speech is disturbing

Social media is without a doubt less popular in the public imagination than it was when the global experiment began around 2004. While online forums and communities had existed before, the world would never be the same once Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, and Myspace all emerged over roughly a three-year span. Initially revered as a democratizing force for free expression and liberal values, the social media industry enjoyed a honeymoon period that is decidedly over.

Presidential candidate Nikki Haley reminded us of this fact on Fox News Tuesday, when she ripped into anonymous online speech as the apparent cause of America’s uncivil politics. Haley proposed forcing social media companies to share their algorithms and require the verification of every user as a top priority of her future administration.

Understandably, many Americans are disenchanted with online life, but Haley’s remedy is a trap.

Online anons make life a little harder, for sure. Anonymous users come in droves, pollute comment sections, and tilt the balance of discourse in favor of those who hide behind what is essentially a modern pen name.

While those of us who travel online using our real names are bound by certain unspoken codes of conduct and concern with reputation, anonymous accounts with monikers like Comfortably Smug, the Critical Drinker, Shoe0nhead, Zerohedge, Doomcock, pakalupapitow, and pourmecoffee produce content and commentary with a little more flexibility. Some online denizens go to great lengths to remain anonymous; others operate barely in the shadows and can be found by any half-skilled sleuth. This is particularly pronounced within the cryptocurrency space.

The reasons for remaining anonymous can be malicious or driven by common sense. Rolling Stone reported on HBO executives who delegated the creation of anonymous accounts to attack TV critics. U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) at first operated @BasedMikeLee on X (formerly Twitter) as almost a parody account while still revealing what he truly thought about issues of the day. 

The fact is that anonymous publishing in America is as old as America itself. Benjamin Franklin wrote his pre-revolutionary pamphlets under the name Silence Dogood. “You know who were anonymous writers back in the day?” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis posted on X. “Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison when they wrote the Federalist Papers. They were not ‘national security threats.’”

Like Nikki Haley, Canadian psychiatrist Jordan Peterson is not amused by online anons. But when he polled his audience on the proposition: “By failing to separate the anonymous cowardly troll demons from real people in the comments section @youtube and other SM (social media) platforms are enabling sadistic Machiavellian psychopaths and narcissists,” 60% of 158,596 respondents disagreed.

Would it have been more truthful and democratic if, to vote in Peterson’s poll, users had to first enter their names and home addresses into a government-mandated form? Taken to its logical conclusion, that’s what the Haleys of the world are arguing: Free speech demands public accountability. Those speaking without identifying themselves are troublemakers, social deviants, and, in Haley’s words, “a national security threat.”

Maybe forcing accountability would make public discourse more orderly and civil, but you’d certainly have less of it overall. Orderly societies are not necessarily free societies. China, for example, can credit the eerie silence in the public square to social pressure and the threat of government persecution if citizens say the wrong thing.

“Don’t allow the anonymous troll-demons to post with the real verified people,” Peterson tweeted at Elon Musk, “Put them in their own hell, along with others like them.”

It’s strange to see people like Peterson, who has experienced real-world censure and cancel culture firsthand, embrace content moderation solutions that their censors would love to see imposed in the name of “national security.”

Imagine how many more bank accounts Canada might have frozen during the 2022 trucker protests if the country had a Nikki Haley-style policy banning anonymous speech online. Solidarity with the truckers would have been far more perilous for everyday people.

Scoping out an online creator’s true identity tends to have one purpose, which is to shut them up. The Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz clearly had such an aim in mind when she doxxed Libs of TikTok, as the account’s growing reach and influence became a concern to top Democrats and progressive activists.

For consumers and citizens online, there is another way that doesn’t involve the Department of Homeland Security under President Nikki Haley handing down rules of the road to Twitter executives. It’s called “discernment.” 

For the online armies of anonymous goblins with zero to 100 followers, quite possibly under the dominion of Russian or Chinese troll farms, individuals and organizations must adopt a policy of courage and confidence. Treat accounts with goofy fake names and bald eagles for profile pictures with the dismissal they (largely) deserve. They exist to cast shadows of monsters on the wall, when in fact you’re dealing with trolls stacked inside a trench coat. 

Second, punish platforms that don’t meet your standards for reducing engagement by bots by spending time online elsewhere. X has a lot of them these days, and it’s a problem. New platforms will step up with a better model for discourse. Be patient, and trust entrepreneurs to solve problems that consumers want solved.

Haley is not alone in being tired of bots and anonymous jerks showing their rears online, but the moment the government and social media platforms coordinate on identity verification online, free speech in the 21st century will be effectively dead.

Originally published here

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