Staff Columnist

Steve King wants to be Teddy Roosevelt for the internet era

Iowa congressman floats 'breaking up' big tech companies

Republican Rep. Steve King talks to voters at the Second Street Emporium restaurant in Webster City, Iowa, U.S. November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Scott Morgan
Republican Rep. Steve King talks to voters at the Second Street Emporium restaurant in Webster City, Iowa, U.S. November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Scott Morgan

U.S. Rep. Steve King is threatening to use the “Teddy Roosevelt step” against U.S. tech companies.

The Iowa Republican drew national headlines last week for an embarrassing interaction with Google CEO Sundar Pichai at a House Judiciary Committee hearing. King demanded answers after explaining his granddaughter recently was exposed to an attack ad against him while she was playing with a mobile device.

“How does that show up on a 7-year-old’s iPhone, who’s playing a kids game?” King asked.

“Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company,” Pichai explained.

“It might have been an Android,” King said.

It was an almost perfect demonstration of the gap in knowledge between those who are frustrated by new technology those who embrace it. King reminded us of friends struggling to explain a non-existent “glitch.” My own mother, who is relatively tech savvy, has done the same thing. The difference is she is not trying to write laws.

That scuffle exposed an important point — the people most eager to impose new rules on the tech industry often lack practical knowledge about how technology works.

However, it also shadowed King’s more troubling comments. During the hearing, he renewed his pledge to explore a set of overbearing government interventions into private business practices.

King and others are worried that the gatekeepers of digital content are systematically blocking conservative viewpoints. King said Google has a “built-in bias,” since its engineers live in liberal California, and the company doesn’t monitor their social media accounts for left-wing posts.

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How do the tech companies do it? King tried to explain algorithms at another committee hearing this year.

“If a certain word shows up, that sets up a software alarm bell, perhaps connected with another word or two or a phrase, that would cause it automatically to be kicked out. Is that a fair explanation of what goes on?” King asked Google and Facebook staffers in June.

That’s not how it works, tech leaders insist, and there are no alarm bells.

Nevertheless, King’s preferred remedy is bigger government. He has repeatedly flirted with the idea that the government should treat tech companies as public utilities, mandating open access for all legal purposes.

“Is there any difference in your mind between say, Facebook, and Twitter and YouTube — those, we’ll call them utilities, not necessarily public utilities, but utilities — is there any difference between them and, let’s say, UPS and FedEx?” King asked conservative media personalities during yet another hearing on the subject this year.

Now King is openly pondering a “Teddy Roosevelt-style break-up,” invoking the president who is most remembered for cracking down on large corporations under antimonopoly laws.

The consequences of King’s idea would be vast and largely unforeseeable. The internet has thrived under light-touch regulations and, contrary to King’s observation, there is ample space for all viewpoints. This kind of talk should make free-market conservatives squeamish.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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