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As Google’s CEO Testifies Before Congress, Conservatives Stew About Social Media ‘Censorship’

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WASHINGTON, December 11, 2018 — Republicans and conservative activists used Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing with Google CEO Sundar Pichai to revive claims that large technology companies are biased against them. But these same activists appear unwilling to accept any result that doesn’t validate their claim.

One prominent Republican who has raised claims of censorship by large technology companies is President Donald Trump, who in August took to Twitter to accuse Google of deliberately manipulating search results to highlight negative stories about him,

“Google search results for “Trump News” shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal?” Trump wrote, suggesting without evidence that 96 percent of search results for “Trump News” came from what he called “National Left-Wing Media.”

“Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation will be addressed!” he added.

At the Tuesday hearing, Pichai rebutted all charges that political bias was present in Google search results. “Our products are build without any bias,” he told legislators – repeatedly.

Facebook is another target of the conservatives’ ire

But at the Google hearing, the critics kept coming. Another frequent target of conservatives’ censorship accusations is Facebook, which has been struggling to harden its platform against foreign disinformation in the two years since Russia’s Internet Research Agency used it to reach millions of Americans with pro-Trump, anti-Clinton messaging.

Some changes Facebook has implemented in the aftermath of 2016 have focused on the algorithm it uses to choose what content users see on the site, others have focused on combatting disinformation and hoax websites masquerading as news organizations.

While Facebook says those changes were made in order to favor original content posted by users’ friends and family, and to elevate local news and fact-checked, trusted news outlets, conservative bloggers say they’ve been targeted for censorship as part of a coordinated campaign by Democrats and their allies.

A ‘conspiracy theorist’ states his case

Jim Hoft, who runs the popular pro-Trump blog the Gateway Pundit, said that the evidence of Facebook’s censorship can be found in his and other conservative news sites’ traffic numbers.

“The top conservative sites on the right noticed this last year, but this year, my traffic has gone from thirty-three percent…to about three percent today. Our little blog had a huge influence on the election, and since that time our advertisers have been targeted, we’ve had two junk lawsuits against us, and our Facebook traffic has been shut down,” Hoft said in an interview.

Hoft was referencing defamation lawsuits against him by a student his site misidentified as a mass shooter, and a State Department employee whom Hoft suggested was a “deep state shill” after he allowed news organizations to use his video of white nationalist James Alex Fields, Jr. using his car to murder anti-racist counter protester Heather Heyer at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Fields was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday.

“I would argue that this is a coordinated attack on conservative sites,’ Hoft said.

When asked who he thought was “coordinating” the “attack,” Hoft replied: “Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I wish I knew.”

Facebook also denies political bias in the administration of its platform

As with Google, Facebook executives have repeatedly denied any bias in how the company runs its platform or enforces its terms of service. Still, but they have attempted to acknowledge conservatives’ concerns by commissioning an external audit of the entire company to determine whether there is any inadvertent political bias in its operations.

The company retained the services of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., then in retirement from politics and a partner at the law firm of Covington and Burling, to conduct the audit.

Kyl returned to the Senate in September after Arizona Governor Doug Ducey tapped him to fill the seat left by death of his onetime colleague, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

A Facebook spokesperson told BroadbandBreakfast that the audit is ongoing under the direction of other Covington and Burling attorneys, and that the company looks forward to sharing the results.

But to Hoft, the results may not matter if they don’t confirm his suspicions.

“If the senator finds there is no bias by Facebook, then no, I won’t accept the results,” he said.

Diamond and Silk aren’t waiting for the results of any social media audit

Two other prominent pro-Trump activists who said they wouldn’t accept any result that doesn’t show pervasive bias against conservatives are Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, the pro-Trump YouTube personalities who go by the name Diamond and Silk online.

Hardaway and Richardson found themselves in the spotlight in April 2018 when they told the House Judiciary Committee that Facebook had allegedly suspended them for being “unsafe to the community.”

During their congressional testimony, Hardaway and Richardson pointed to exchanges with Facebook staff explaining other disciplinary actions the company took against them as evidence of bias, and also cited low viewership numbers for their videos as further evidence of censorship.

In a phone interview with BroadbandBreakfast, the pair continued to cite low viewership numbers as proof of a censorship conspiracy.

“Why is it that somebody with 500,000 followers was able to garner 5,000,000 views, and we have 1,200,000 and we were only able to garner 13,000 on our video?” Hardaway asked during an interview with BroadbandBreakfast.

“There’s something not right with this algorithm system, this algorithm system is discriminating against conservative voices, and they’re censoring and stifling conservative voices,” she added.

Richardson, her “Silk” counterpart, suggested that it was only conservatives who’ve been affected by Facebook’s changes.

“I do not see liberals complaining about any kind of censorship,” she said.

A new ‘Fairness Doctrine’ for the internet?

Despite the myriad conservative activists and politicians claiming systematic bias and calling for regulation, experts haven’t found anything of the sort, and most remain skeptical of the need for what would amount to a renewed “fairness doctrine” — the former Federal Communications Commission regulation that required television and radio stations to give equal time to both sides when discussing controversial issues — for the internet.

One expert who testified in April alongside Hardaway and Richardson, TechFreedom President Berin Szoka, said the idea espoused by some conservatives that government should step in to regulate social media companies is “insane.”

“I don’t think they have any clue what that would mean,” he said, comparing it to the Fairness Doctrine, which was scrapped during the Reagan administration.

That policy, which Szoka called “hugely problematic and impractical,” was long reviled by conservatives and has been defunct since the Reagan administration.

What some conservatives want for social media “goes way, way beyond” what was required by the Fairness Doctrine, Szoka said, because it would treat companies like Facebook as government actors, meaning they could not restrict speech in any way.

Szoka added that conservatives are wary of Facebook’s attempts to crack down on fake accounts, hoaxes, fabricated news and disinformation because they often benefit from such tactics.

“This is entirely about narrow political interests and short term political interests,” he said.

“Right now the fake news industry is ginning up the American id for the Republican Party. It is not surprising, therefore, that Republicans have suddenly done a complete 180 degree turn on everything they used to say about the Fairness Doctrine, and how the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private actors, just doesn’t apply to the Internet. Instead, they now want a Fairness Doctrine for the internet on steroids,” he said.

‘Popehat’ blog author weighs into the controversy, against social media terms of service

Some conservatives cite the First Amendment when suggesting that technology and social media companies shouldn’t be able to enforce terms of service against political speech. But those who accuse Facebook and others of censorship “pretend that companies like Facebook don’t have free speech rights, and they do,” said Ken White, a former federal prosecutor and free speech advocate who frequently writes about First Amendment issues on the “Popehat” blog.

“Facebook and Twitter and all these other platforms have a right of free expression and free association, and part of that is them creating the type of platform they want to offer to their customers, which may not include me, but that’s their right,” he said.

White said that while some Republicans are using congressional hearings to push the idea that conservatives are being censored, from all the evidence he’s seen, there is no censorship taking place.

(Photo of Google CEO Sundar Pichai being sworn in for his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on December 11, 2018, taken by Drew Clark.)

Andrew Feinberg is the White House Correspondent and Managing Editor for Breakfast Media. He rejoined BroadbandBreakfast.com in late 2016 after working as a staff writer at The Hill and as a freelance writer. He worked at BroadbandBreakfast.com from its founding in 2008 to 2010, first as a Reporter and then as Deputy Editor. He also covered the White House for Russia's Sputnik News from the beginning of the Trump Administration until he was let go for refusing to use White House press briefings to promote conspiracy theories, and later documented the experience in a story which set off a chain of events leading to Sputnik being forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Andrew's work has appeared in such publications as The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Washington Internet Daily, Washington Business Journal, The Sentinel Newspapers, FastCompany.TV, Mashable, and Silicon Angle.

Antitrust

Former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Says Biden is Inappropriately Exhorting the Agency

Former Chairman William Kovacic said that Biden’s direction of the FTC raises expectations for the agency.

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Photo of George Washington University professor William Kovacic giving a lecture in 2017 from the university

WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – A former Federal Trade Commission chairman criticized the Biden administration’s direction of the FTC to accomplish the president’s antitrust goals.

At a Wednesday forum of the Mercatus Institute, former FTC Chairman William Kovacic criticized Joe Biden’s “instruction, direction, and exhortation” to the FTC, which is an independent agency and not part of the executive branch.

In July, President Biden directed regulators to craft rules preventing manufacturers like Microsoft and Apple from restrict consumers’ ability to fix their own devices. After the FTC voted unanimously to increase its enforcement against “right to repair” restrictions, both Microsoft and Apple announced plans for consumers to repair their own products.

Kovacic said that Biden almost appears to have the attitude that he “gave [the FTC and DOJ] an assignment” to advance the Biden administration’s consumer protection goals.

Then imagining that he was arguing from the perspective of the Biden administration, Kovacic said Biden could argue that he gave the FTC “an assignment to work on those guidelines and an exhortation to the FTC to get the work done,” as opposed to specific marching orders on the topics.

Mismatched capabilities at the FTC

Kovacic, who served as a commissioner at the FTC beginning in 2006, and who chaired the agency from 2008 to 2009, said the FTC has a history of mismatching its commitments with its capabilities.

In developing consumer protection programs, currently a professor of law at George Washington University, said the FTC often fails to ask “basic questions about who would do it, how long it would take, how much it would cost, and whether or not the institution has the credibility or capacity” to administer successful programs.

Kovacic said that in order to achieve a successful regulatory agenda, there must be a “stability of perspectives” that will endure across administrations.

Policymakers should be mindful not to abandon the resistance from total regulatory overhaul that he said “afflicted” his predecessors as chairs of the agency.

“Everybody will step forward and say, ‘I have my list.’ I suspect the Commission already is getting a letter each day from members of Congress saying, ‘here’s another one.’”

Recalling the many prior presidents’ push for regulators to control petroleum prices – including by President Biden in November – Kovacic said the FTC can’t always deliver.

“Whenever there’s going to be a problem the new leadership, seen as competition policy superheroes, will be exhorted to do something, and it will not be an adequate response to say, ‘we’ve already got a lot on the agenda, we’ll get to it when we can.'”

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International

Facebook is Failing Iranians, and Iran’s Leaders Are About to Launch a Censored Internet

Social media platforms are harming Iran due to their ignorance of Iranian culture and the nation’s primary dialects.

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Photo of Mahsa Alimardani, Iran program officer for Article19, from March 2018 by ITU Pictures

WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – A lack of cultural understanding by Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms is a prevailing reason for inaccurate content moderation in Iran, Middle East experts said.

Moreover, and they said, Iran’s proposed international internet replacement, the National Information Network, is dangerously close to coming into effect.

Speaking at a Thursday event of the Atlantic Council designed to draw attention to the current status of social media in Iran, a human rights expert said that Big Tech’s chronic misunderstanding of the Persian language leads to censorship of content that is either entertainment-based or posted by Iranian activists.

Panelists at the event also highlighted a new report “Iranians on #SocialMedia,” as the inspiration for the discussion.

Facebook “needs someone who actually understands what is going on on the ground,” claimed Simin Kargar, a human rights and technology research fellow at Digital Forensic Research Lab. Because the company don’t employ or contract with such people, said Kargar, the platform and its sister Instagram are inappropriately censoring posts in the country.

Because of the platforms’ negligence in understanding and adapting to local concerns, the Iranian people are not benefiting from the internet.

And – because Iran also heavily monitoring and censoring the internet within its borders, the Iranian people end up being hindered by the double-whammy of Iranian and Facebook censorship, Kargar said.

Iranian censorship and Facebook censorship

Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with the human rights organization Article19, agreed that misconceptions due to language are a dangerous foe. She made this comment when asked what America can do to help and whether American sanctions have played play a part in the rise in content moderation.

All panelists at the event said that while American sanctions against Iran impact the internet in the country, they are not responsible for what is currently happening in Iran.

However, Alimardani also blamed Meta, the new corporate name for the company that runs Facebook and Instagram, for improper and excessive content moderation.

She said Facebook currently flag anything related to the Iranian guard after the Trump Administration created a list of dangerous people that should be restricted on social media. She disagreed that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps should be listed as a foreign terrorist organization.

Is the National Information Network a new model for authoritarian regimes?

The National Information Network, the new censored internet that Iran is currently working to implement, had been planned to launch in March. Alimardani said she believes that the release will be postponed because of disagreements about who within the government will control content moderation, and the impact the firewall could have on Iranian tech companies.

Alimardani highlighted the unique nature of the Iranian law that created the national internet. Instead of being voted on by the Iranian Parliament, the legislative body deferred action on the creation of a permanent national internet only until after an experimental period with the firewall, she said.

Yet the government has been pushing its own online streaming and video platforms. These platforms are part of the government’s attempt to incentivize an Iranian national “internet.”

Throwing cheap broadband into a censored internet to sweeten the pot?

Essentially, said Kargar, the government is promising more bandwidth at a lower cost through the National Information Network. The new network is also appealing to Iranian consumers because the NIN will primarily be in the country’s major dialect.

Holly Dagres, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and the author of the “Iranians on #SocialMedia”, also spoke on the NIN. She said it would take Iran back to the Middle Ages, and also limit communication with other Iranians and with the outside world.

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Antitrust

Consolidation, Bloat, and a Waning American ‘Brand’ Hurt the Economy, Says Tim Wu

He argued that fundamental changes must be made to restore peoples’ faith in an American system that works for everyone.

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Photo of Tim Wu from January 2017 on Wikipedia Day used with permission

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2022 –White House Special Assistant Tim Wu said Wednesday that the U.S. economy is over-consolidated and bloated in the middle.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Wu, a member of the National Economic Council with a portfolio over Technology and Competition Policy, argued that that the “American dream” has suffered major setbacks in recent decades.

Wu, who is credited with coining the term “net neutrality” and a longstanding critic of telecom monopolies, has more recently become an outspoken critic of big technology companies.

See also:

“We can see very vividly how fragile this concentrated economic system we built has been and how poorly it is working for the whole country,” Wu said.

“Our country has become too centralized. It is too national in its character – in terms of where businesses are location – too centered on consumption, as opposed to production.

“Too many of the [economic] returns go to too few people who often live very far away from the communities they serve.”

Hearkening to the post-World War II decades in which Western nations endorsed significant government intervention in the economy as part of social democracy, Wu said that America is “relearning the virtues and merits of a mixed economy – that is the truer American tradition of small and medium business – market structures where [people] can all survive and prosper; what [President Joe Biden] calls ‘an economy that works for everyone.’”

Can elements of a new form of social democracy be revived in a technology-drenched age?

Wu distilled his criticisms to three primary points: Too many industries have become too consolidated, a bloated “middleman” economy has emerged, and the “American brand” has diminished.

“We have all seen so many industries consolidate into just the ‘big three’ or ‘big four,’” Wu said. “That is a traditional problem that I think extracts a lot from the economy.”

Wu went on to explain the “middleman” economy – a rise of a “highly concentrated middle layer” across many industries. This bloat on the processing end takes place somewhere between the inception of a product or service and the consumer is extracting too much revenue, Wu said.

“When you think about monopoly – which is just high prices – it leads to this problem where the middlemen have power over their suppliers and are able to squeeze their suppliers and also often able to squeeze their employees,” Wu said. This is “a new kind of problem for the economy, and one that we need to face.”

ILSR’s Stacey Mitchell and Tim Wu.

What is the ‘American brand’?

Wu’s final point related to what he referred to as the “American brand.”

“There has been a real sense that the sense of opportunity that has been the ‘American brand’ has diminished,” he said. “The statistics are a little depressing that confirm this.”

75 percent of U.S. industries are controlled by fewer companies than they were 20 years ago, Wu said. He pointed to mergers that skyrocketed in the 1980s and predicted that 2022 will feature a record number of mergers.

“These are real challenges and I just want to assure you that the administration of the White House is very focused on [them] and we see it not just in terms of the economy, but in terms of the Democratic soul of this nation,” Wu said. “Freedom and opportunity are not trivial things when it comes to describing what democracy is all about.

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