President Donald Trump seemed especially jealous of Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday. First, Trump again mused about extending presidential term limits because he wants to preside over the 2026 World Cup. That was probably a joke. Less funny were Trump’s repeated threats to punish Google if it doesn’t appease his political demands. That smacks of the kind of authoritarianism and Internet control that Xi and the Chinese Communist Party have mastered.
Set aside the reality that there’s zero evidence Google’s search algorithm is “RIGGED,” as Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. As Maggie Haberman of the New York Times pointed out, Trump doesn’t use a computer, so there’s little chance he did his own research. The disturbing part is that Trump is suggesting Google is doing something “illegal” by returning search results that reflect badly on him personally – and he’s threatening retribution.
In China, the Internet is censored so heavily, even references to Winnie the Pooh are blocked because Xi doesn’t like being compared to the cartoon character. Forget about publishing anything online that criticizes Xi directly, his government or anything the Communist Party deems improper, unharmonious or subversive. You will be jailed.
But the main way Xi controls the Internet is by forcing companies who own and manage Internet platforms – both Chinese and foreign firms – to do the political bidding of the party. Companies that don’t comply face punishment dressed up as “regulation” as well as the scorn that comes with the party publicly accusing them of committing offences against the Chinese people.
When a Marriott employee “liked” a tweet from a pro-Tibet group, the Chinese government shut down Marriott’s website in China, called in company executives for police interrogation and demanded the offending employee be fired. Marriott completely caved and apologised. Mercedes-Benz similarly prostrated itself to Beijing when it removed an Instagram post that quoted the Dalai Lama. Major US air carriers have scrubbed the word “Taiwan” from their websites under severe pressure from Beijing.
Even Google itself has been secretly developing a censored search engine and compiling data for blacklists in an ill-conceived attempt to re-enter the Chinese market. Trump could be forgiven for thinking that Google might bow to an authoritarian who threatens its business and reputation.
To be sure, the United States has laws, customs and institutions that should prevent the Chinese-style Internet control Trump seems to envy. But the fact that our head of state is attempting to exert pressure to intimidate Google into changing the way it operates to favour his own political agenda is a dangerous step toward a slippery slope.
That’s not to say giant Internet platforms that wield enormous power and influence don’t deserve more scrutiny and oversight. Google, Facebook, and Twitter must be more transparent about how they decide who gets access and prominence on their platforms and why. It’s a national conversation that may require some government regulation or oversight.
But the way Trump and some other conservative leaders have distorted this debate is counterproductive. As my colleague Catherine Rampell recently observed, conservative complaints of bias or “shadow banning” on social media are muddied when leaders reveal their ineptitude, such as when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., simply couldn’t figure out how to adjust his Twitter settings.
Government and the tech sector need to work together to figure out how to ensure that huge Internet platforms aren’t abused or weaponised for evil purposes. Some calls are easy. Russian intelligence agencies should not be able to easily spread propaganda. Burmese military leaders should not be allowed to promote genocide.
But Trump tipped his hand when he made it all about politics and himself. In contrast to China, we have the First Amendment. It protects conservatives’ right to speak, and it protects those who criticize the president from having their voices suppressed in a relative way because the president believes he can threaten the companies that distribute that content.
Trump may not like that most of his media coverage is negative, but unlike Xi he doesn’t have the power to censor his critics. If he wants to know why Google searches on “Trump News” return mostly negative results, he should put down Twitter and pick up a mirror.
© The Washington Post 2018