90 Miles From Tyranny : 4 Big Takeaways From Senate Hearing on Tech Bias

Thursday, October 29, 2020

4 Big Takeaways From Senate Hearing on Tech Bias

The CEOs of Twitter, Facebook, and Google defended themselves Wednesday on Capitol Hill from charges of political bias in how they share news and other information.

They testified before a Senate committee roughly a week after Twitter and Facebook suppressed a New York Post expose on the lucrative foreign business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

But the hearing went well beyond the Post’s coverage two weeks ago of the files contained in a laptop computer purportedly belonging to Hunter Biden, delving into what Republicans called a consistent double standard in blocking content on the digital platforms.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified under oath before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The three agreed to appear voluntarily and remotely to avoid a subpoena during what has become a hot issue this election year.

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Several Republicans have talked about revoking the protection from litigation that social media platforms enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The provision exempts the companies from being sued for published content they didn’t originate–such as the New York Post’s coverage of the Hunter Biden scandal.

If the companies are blocking or suppressing online content based on political leaning, some lawmakers have argued, they are functionally publishers and not neutral platforms, and can be exposed to the same defamation laws as news organizations such as the Post.

Section 230 should be “carefully refined” to fit the law’s original intent but not scrapped, even if social media giants and other tech firms have squandered the public’s trust, contends Klon Kitchen, director of the Center for Technology Policy at The Heritage Foundation, in a report published Tuesday.

“Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been critical to the development of today’s Internet and Internet services,” the report’s summary states, adding:

But the expanding presence of these services in the lives of Americans and a growing political distrust of the companies providing these services highlight the need to refine the scope and language of Section 230 to better fit the statute’s original intent and to assuage these concerns. Such refinement is the best way to fan the flames of economic freedom and creativity while protecting individual and corporate freedom of speech.

Here are four key takeaways from the Senate committee’s hearing on the perceived bias of tech firms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter. 

1. ‘Just One Example?’

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, noted several cases in which digital platforms put restrictions on conservative politicians and media outlets, and pressed the CEOs to name one example of a liberal individual or entity that got the same scrutiny. Only Google’s CEO was able to give a specific answer.

“I see these quotes where each of you tell consumers about your business practices. Then you seem to do the opposite and take censorship-related actions against the president, against members of his administration, against the New York Post, the Babylon Bee, The Federalist, pro-life groups, and there are countless other exammples,” Lee said.

The Utah Republican clarified what he meant.

“When I use the word ‘censor,’ I mean block content, fact check, or label content or demonetize websites of conservative, Republican, or pro-life individuals or groups or companies, contradicting your commercial policies,” Lee said. “But I don’t see this suppression of high-profile liberal commentators.”

Facebook’s Zuckerberg said examples exist, but he just couldn’t think of any.

“There are certainly many examples that your Democratic colleagues object to when a fact-checker might label something as false that they disagree with,” Zuckerberg said.

Lee responded: “I get that. I’m just asking if you can name one high-profile liberal person or company who you have censored. One name.”

Zuckerberg replied, “I’d need to think about it and get you a list.”

Dorsey of Twitter responded, “We can give a more exhaustive list.”

Lee reiterated, “I’m not asking for an exhaustive list, just one example, one entity. Anyone.”

Twitter’s Dorsey said, “Two Democratic Congress people. … I’ll get those names to you.”

By contrast, Google’s Pichai seemed prepared for the question.

“We have turned down ads from Priorities USA, from Vice President Biden’s campaign,” the Google chief said. “We have had compliance issues with World Socialist Review, which is a left-leaning publication. We can give you several examples. We have a violent graphic content policy.”

World Socialist Review apparently was last published in 2011.

Lee said the tech companies have the right to set their own terms of service.

“But given the disparate impact of who gets censored on your platforms, it seems that one, you are to enforce your terms of service equally, or two, you’re writing your standards to target conservative viewpoints,” Lee said. 

2. Who Elected You?

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, didn’t mince words, declaring: “The three witnesses we have before this committee collectively pose, I believe, the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections.”

Cruz jumped into the example of...

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