Sparks fly at hearing on anti-conservative bias in Silicon Valley social media

Sparks fly at hearing on anti-conservative bias in tech
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Lawmakers clashed Tuesday at a contentious hearing over claims that social media platforms and tech companies are biased against conservative viewpoints.

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee said the hearing addressed a serious issue. But Democrats said the hearing, coming one day after President Trump dismissed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election during a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, was a waste of time.

“This committee has oversight of the Department of Justice,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). “Our president also disparaged the Department of Justice. Are we having a hearing on that? No.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), the panel's top Democrat, tried to end the hearing early by introducing a motion to end discussion of alleged bias and instead move to an executive session on Russian election interference.

The largely symbolic motion was voted down 12-10.

Fellow Democrats, such as Reps. Jamie Raskin (Md.) and David Cicilline(R.I.) joined Nadler and Lieu in railing against conservatives for not putting enough focus on Trump and Russia.

Raskin called the conservative fears about bias a “fantasy.”

But Republicans pressed ahead with the hearing over how platforms handle conservative content, grilling three Silicon Valley executives: Facebook’s head of global policy, Monika Bickert; Twitter’s senior policy strategist, Nick Pickles; and YouTube’s head of policy, Juniper Downs.

The lawmakers cited high-profile examples of conservative posts being censored, including one incident when a video for Rep. Marsha Blackburn's (R-Tenn.) Senate bid accusing Planned Parenthood of selling "baby body parts" was taken down as a campaign ad on Twitter.

Blackburn didn’t speak during the hearing, but she told The Hill before that the “subjective manipulation of algorithms is of tremendous concern for us.”

“We’ve addressed it and we plan on keeping the pressure on big tech,” she added.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) questioned technology companies' legal responsibilities.

Issa pressed Google on an incident where search results claimed Nazism was an ideology of the California Republican Party. The mistake happened because of an incorrect entry on a Wikipedia page that Google used to auto-populate search information boxes.

“When you absorb content, aren’t you absorbing the responsibility?” Issa asked. He asked if major tech companies should now be held to the same standards as media outlets.

During the hearing, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) pressed Facebook on why it had allegedly shown content from Gateway Pundit, when content from other users had been blocked. Gateway Pundit is a far-right website that has promoted hoax stories in the past.

King asked if lawmakers should review legal safeguards that allow companies to avoid liability for much of the user-generated content that is posted on their platforms.

“If this gets further out of hand, it appears to me that Section 230 needs to be reviewed,” King said, referring to part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

The provision has widely been seen as pivotal in allowing the growth of web companies by protecting them from frivolous lawsuits over content created by users.

But YouTube's Downs and the other executives said that they shouldn't be held to the same standards as media companies. They said online platforms don't edit users' copy or make editorial judgments in the same way newspapers do.

Throughout the hearing, they stressed that social media platforms are different from publishers and shouldn't be held to the same legal rules.

Democrats also raised their own concerns about social media, in particular claims that companies have been slow to take down users who promote conspiracy theories or hoax stories.

Raskin asked Bickert why InfoWars was still on Facebook, despite apparently violating the company's policies by repeatedly posting false stories. InfoWars is a website that has promoted conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, among others.

Bickert told him that Facebook had removed content from Infowars but that they “have not reached the threshold” for removal yet.

Pressed on what that red line was, Bickert said only that it "depends."

Facebook has cited free speech concerns in response to such criticism in the past.

“We see Pages on both the left and the right pumping out what they consider opinion or analysis — but others call fake news," the company said last week. "We believe banning these Pages would be contrary to the basic principles of free speech."

Despite trading barbs though, both Republicans and Democrats made it clear they intend to keep a close eye on how social media companies police their content going further.

“Your actions around these issues are essential to making sure that your platforms aren’t misused to the detriment of democracy,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told the executives.

European regulators are expected to hit Google with a multibillion fine on Tuesday or Wednesday, an announcement that’s being closely watched not because of the anticipated size of the penalty — Google basically prints money at this point, so it will be able to easily absorb the blow. What’s really at stake is whether the EU uses the fine to force changes in the way the search giant does business.

The penalty coming this week is a product of Google’s longstanding policy of requiring Android device makers to set Google’s own search and web browsers as the default offerings. European regulators could fine Google as much as $11 billion if they wanted to, but while the fine is not expected to be that high, it is expected to top last year’s $2.72 billion antitrust penalty against Google for unfairly ranking its comparison-shopping service over similar offerings from rivals in search results.

The reason this week’s fine will likely surpass that amount is because the the probe that brought regulators to this point was much more expansive. At issue are the rules Google binds phone makers to if they want to use the company’s Android operating system, and how far European regulators might want to go in possibly forcing Google to level the playing field. Making it easier for smartphone makers, in other words, to choose what apps they want to pre-install on devices.

In a blog post, Google general counsel Kent Walker defended the company’s position by explaining that distributing products like Google Search together with its Google Play app store “permits us to offer our entire suite for free — as opposed to, for example, charging upfront licensing fees. This free distribution is an efficient solution for everyone — it lowers prices for phone makers and consumers, while still letting us sustain our substantial investment in Android and Play.”

A Reuters report out today, meanwhile, speculates that anyone hoping regulators use this week as a chance to take Google down a peg may end up disappointed. Specifically because, well, it’s probably too late at this point.

The piece quotes Richard Windsor, an analyst at research company Radio Free Mobile. Google is too entrenched, he explains, a reference to realities like Android boasting a more than 75 percent market share in four of Europe’s five biggest regions, according to Kantar Worldpanel.

Which means, Windsor continues, that users in Europe are now “completely accustomed” to using Google services — and even prefer them.

“Hence, I think separating Google Play from the rest of Google’s Digital Life services would have very little impact as users would simply download and install them from the store,” Windsor said.