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House Republicans Grill Google CEO Sundar Pichai Over Alleged Political Bias

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WASHINGTON, December 11, 2018 – The CEO of search engine Google came to Washington on Tuesday and politely rebutted all charges that the world’s largest search engine is biased against conservative viewpoints.

In the calm and controlled voice of an engineer, CEO Sundar Pichai said, “Our products are built without any bias,” responding to a question of the House Judiciary Committee Chairman.

“We don’t build partisan features,” he repeated later to another Republican member of the committee.

Indeed, Pichai had to contend with an almost-uninterrupted narrative – fed largely, but not completely, by members of the GOP – that Google’s search engine results were in some way systematically biased.

Moreover, as the head of one of the country’s leading information technology companies, Pichai was robustly challenged on issues ranging from the extent of Google’s surveillance-like data-collection to the existence of prototype search engine that returned restricted results – and is apparently designed to cater to the communist China market.

Pichai didn’t face as much overt hostility as was experienced by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he sat down for his grilling before the same committee after the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal earlier this year. But Pichai wasn’t welcomed very warmly, either.

On privacy, Pichai said that he, like Facebook CEO Zuckerberg, supported Congress considering data privacy legislation.

Does Google exhibit bias in its search engine results?

Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., set a confrontational tone, without being conspiratorial:

“While it is true that Google is not a government entity and so it does not have to comply with the First Amendment, the American people deserve to know what types of information they are not getting when they perform searches on the internet. The market works best when information about products and services is readily available, and so today – on behalf of this Committee and the American consumer – I hope to get answers from Mr. Pichai regarding who at Google makes the judgment calls on whether to filter or block objectionable content and what metrics Google uses to make those decisions.”

Pichai insisted that Google’s algorithms are designed to accurately reflect what people are talking about online at any given time. Google is not “the internet” so much as representing what is on the internet at any given time, he seemed to be saying.

“Any time you type in a keyword, we crawl copies of billions of web pages, and we take the keyword and match it against pages for relevance, freshness, popularity, how others are using the it, and we try to rank and find the best” pages for that particular keyword, he said.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., used this concept to explain why, when an individual conducts a search for the word “idiot” in Google, the image of Donald Trump comes up repeatedly.

Google doesn’t return these results because Google is making this commentary of the president, Lofgren said. Rather, Google is reflected what others internet users are saying.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., made the same point when noting that search results of most of his fellow colleagues were not overtly imbalanced – with the exception of Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa (not a member of the Judiciary Committee) – but has recently made controversial statements about figures linked with white supremacy movements.

“If you are getting bad search results on Google, don’t blame Google, blame yourself,” Lieu said to his Republican colleagues.

“This is the fourth hearing in a series of ridiculous hearings [because] the First Amendment protects private individuals and corporations’ rights to freedom of speech.”

Republican representatives pile on against Google

Still, Republican after Republican had a story to tell about a gripe they had regarding Google results. Many lobbed in questions about Google’s privacy and market power.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, refused to believe that bias was not present in the curation of political content when more than 90 percent of the searches for Donald Trump produce negative stories on the president. He also referred to pro-Trump content being labelled, or “flagged,” as hate speech.

“This doesn’t happen by accident, but is baked into the algorithms,” said Smith.

Pichai disagreed, and referred to the company’s political neutrality in algorithm results as “sacrosanct.”

But Smith wasn’t buying it, and referred to the evidence of political bias on the Google platform as “irrefutable.”

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, contended that virtually every reference to a health care bill that he had introduced was “an attack on our bill.” He had to go to the third or fourth page of the search engine’s results to find one that was “remotely positive.”

Replied Pichai: “We use a methodology about what is being said about a topic at any given time.

“It is in our interest to make sure we reflect what is happening out there in the most effective method possible. Our algorithms have no sense of politics.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., criticized an apparent divergence in the rates that are charged for the keywords being used by Republican candidates versus Democratic candidates.

Pichai said that prices for advertising were determined on the basis of automatic auctions, and that that was “why I am confident that we don’t approach our work with political bias.”

Nonethless, Pichai committed to following up with Issa to looking at the reasons for the divergent pricing of keywords for Republican versus Democratic candidates.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, pressed for details on the information collection capacities of an Android phone. Then, acknowledging that Google had a First Amendment right to present the search results it wanted, added: “I hope we don’t get to the point where government comes in and regulates what is biased, because [Google] is an independent and free company.”

Privacy and China also play a role in the hearing

Pichai was also criticized repeatedly – by representatives of both parties – for its sweeping data-collection practices, and for a reported prototype of a search engine for the Chinese market.

Pichai wiggled on the question of a Chinese search engine: “We have no plans to launch in China,” he said, adding, “Right now, we have no plans to launch search in China.”

Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Penn., finally got the most information out of him, when he acknowledged the existence of a prototype products for “what search would look like” in a country that require mandatory content filtering.

At one point, he said, more than 100 Google engineers were working on the project.

(Photo of Google CEO Sundar Pichai by Drew Clark.)

 

Breakfast Media LLC CEO Drew Clark has led the Broadband Breakfast community since 2008. An early proponent of better broadband, better lives, he initially founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for broadband data. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over the leading media company advocating for higher-capacity internet everywhere through topical, timely and intelligent coverage. Clark also served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative.

Artificial Intelligence

Automated Content Moderation’s Main Problem is Subjectivity, Not Accuracy, Expert Says

With millions of pieces of content generated daily, platforms are increasingly relying on AI for moderation.

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Screenshot of American Enterprise Institute event

WASHINGTON, February 2, 2023 — The vast quantity of online content generated daily will likely drive platforms to increasingly rely on artificial intelligence for content moderation, making it critically important to understand the technology’s limitations, according to an industry expert.

Despite the ongoing culture war over content moderation, the practice is largely driven by financial incentives — so even companies with “a speech-maximizing set of values” will likely find some amount of moderation unavoidable, said Alex Feerst, CEO of Murmuration Labs, at a Jan. 25 American Enterprise Institute event. Murmuration Labs works with tech companies to develop online trust and safety products, policies and operations.

If a piece of online content could potentially lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, a company is “highly incentivized to err on the side of taking things down,” Feerst said. And even beyond legal liability, if the presence of certain content will alienate a substantial number of users and advertisers, companies have financial motivation to remove it.

However, a major challenge for content moderation is the sheer quantity of user-generated online content — which, on the average day, includes 500 million new tweets, 700 million Facebook comments and 720,000 hours of video uploaded to YouTube.

“The fully loaded cost of running a platform includes making millions of speech adjudications per day,” Feerst said.

“If you think about the enormity of that cost, very quickly you get to the point of, ‘Even if we’re doing very skillful outsourcing with great accuracy, we’re going to need automation to make the number of daily adjudications that we seem to need in order to process all of the speech that everybody is putting online and all of the disputes that are arising.’”

Automated moderation is not just a theoretical future question. In a March 2021 congressional hearing, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified that “more than 95 percent of the hate speech that we take down is done by an AI and not by a person… And I think it’s 98 or 99 percent of the terrorist content.”

Dealing with subjective content

But although AI can help manage the volume of user-generated content, it can’t solve one of the key problems of moderation: Beyond a limited amount of clearly illegal material, most decisions are subjective.

Much of the debate surrounding automated content moderation mistakenly presents subjectivity problems as accuracy problems, Feerst said.

For example, much of what is generally considered “hate speech” is not technically illegal, but many platforms’ terms of service prohibit such content. With these extrajudicial rules, there is often room for broad disagreement over whether any particular piece of content is a violation.

“AI cannot solve that human subjective disagreement problem,” Feerst said. “All it can do is more efficiently multiply this problem.”

This multiplication becomes problematic when AI models are replicating and amplifying human biases, which was the basis for the Federal Trade Commission’s June 2022 report warning Congress to avoid overreliance on AI.

“Nobody should treat AI as the solution to the spread of harmful online content,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement announcing the report. “Combatting online harm requires a broad societal effort, not an overly optimistic belief that new technology — which can be both helpful and dangerous — will take these problems off our hands.”

The FTC’s report pointed to multiple studies revealing bias in automated hate speech detection models, often as a result of being trained on unrepresentative and discriminatory data sets.

As moderation processes become increasingly automated, Feerst predicted that the “trend of those problems being amplified and becoming less possible to discern seems very likely.”

Given those dangers, Feerst emphasized the urgency of understanding and then working to resolve AI’s limitations, noting that the demand for content moderation will not go away. To some extent, speech disputes are “just humans being human… you’re never going to get it down to zero,” he said.

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Social Media

Must Internet Platforms Host Objectionable Content? Appeals Courts Consider ‘Must Carry’ Rules

Court decisions on Texas and Florida “must-carry” laws disagreed on whether online platforms should be regulated as common carriers.

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Photo of Reese Schonfeld, President of Cable News Network and Reynelda Nuse, weekend anchorwoman for CNN, stand at a set at the broadcast center in Atlanta in May 1980.

WASHINGTON, January 30, 2023 — As the Supreme Court prepares to hear a pair of cases about online platform liability, it is also considering a separate pair of social media lawsuits that aim to push content moderation practices in the opposite direction, adding additional questions about the First Amendment and common carrier status to an already complicated issue.

The “must-carry” laws in Texas and Florida, both aimed at limiting online content moderation, met with mixed decisions in appeals courts after being challenged by tech industry groups NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association. The outcomes will likely end up “affecting millions of Americans and their ability to express themselves online,” said Chris Marchese, counsel at NetChoice, at a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday.

In September, a federal appeals court in the Fifth Circuit upheld the Texas law, ruling that social media platforms can be regulated as “common carriers,” or required to carry editorial programming as were cable television operators in the Turner Broadcasting System v. FCC decisions from the 1990s.

Dueling appeals court interpretations

By contrast, the judges overturning the Florida ruling held that social media platforms are not common carriers. Even if they were, the 11th Circuit Court judges held, “neither law nor logic recognizes government authority to strip an entity of its First Amendment rights merely by labeling it a common carrier.”

Whether social media platforms should be treated like common carriers is “a fair question to ask,” said Marshall Van Alstyne, Questrom chair professor at Boston University. It would be difficult to reach a broad audience online without utilizing one of the major platforms, he claimed.

However, Marchese argued that in the Texas ruling, the Fifth Circuit “to put it politely, ignored decades of binding precedent.” First Amendment protections have previously been extended to “what we today might think of as common carriers,” he said.

“I think we can safely say that Texas and Florida do not have the ability to force our private businesses to carry political speech or any type of speech that they don’t see fit,” Marchese said.

Ari Cohn, free speech counsel at TechFreedom, disagreed with the common carrier classification altogether, referencing an amicus brief arguing that “social media and common carriage are irreconcilable concepts,” filed by TechFreedom in the Texas case.

Similar ‘must-carry’ laws are gaining traction in other states

While the two state laws have the same general purpose of limiting moderation, their specific restrictions differ. The Texas law would ban large platforms from any content moderation based on “viewpoint.” Critics have argued that the term is so vague that it could prevent moderation entirely.

“In other words, if a social media service allows coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it would also be forced to disseminate Russian propaganda about the war,” Marchese said. “So if you allow conversation on a topic, then you must allow all viewpoints on that topic, no matter how horrendous those viewpoints are.”

The Florida law “would require covered entities — including ones that you wouldn’t necessarily think of, like Etsy — to host all or nearly all content from so-called ‘journalistic enterprises,’ which is basically defined as anybody who has a small following on the internet,” Marchese explained. The law also prohibits taking down any speech from political candidates.

The impact of the two cases will likely be felt far beyond those two states, as dozens of similar content moderation bills have already been proposed in states across the country, according to Ali Sternburg, vice president of information policy for the CCIA.

But for now, both laws are blocked while the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the cases. On Jan. 23, the court asked for the U.S. solicitor general’s input on the decision.

“I think this was their chance to buy time because in effect, so many of these cases are actually asking the court to do opposite things,” Van Alstyne said.

Separate set of cases calls for more, not less, moderation

In February, the Supreme Court will hear two cases that effectively argue the reverse of the Texas and Florida laws by alleging that social media platforms are not doing enough to remove harmful content.

The cases were brought against Twitter and Google by family members of terror attack victims, who argue that the platforms knowingly allowed terrorist groups to spread harmful content and coordinate attacks. One case specifically looks at YouTube’s recommendation algorithms, asking whether Google can be held liable for not only hosting but promoting terrorist content.

Algorithms have become “the new boogeyman” in ongoing technology debates, but they essentially act like mirrors, determining content recommendations based on what users have searched for, engaged with and said about themselves, Cohn explained.

Reese Schonfeld, President of Cable News Network and Reynelda Nuse, weekend anchorwoman for CNN, stand at one of the many sets at the broadcast center in Atlanta on May 31, 1980. The network, owned by Ted Turner, began it’s 24-hour-a-day news broadcasts on Sunday in the afternoon. (AP Photo/Joe Holloway used with permission.)

“This has been litigated in a number of different contexts, and in pretty much all of them, the courts have said we can’t impose liability for the communication of bad ideas,” Cohn said. “You hold the person who commits the wrongful act responsible, and that’s it. There’s no such thing as negligently pointing to someone to bad information.”

A better alternative to reforming Section 230 would be implementing “more disclosures and transparency specifically around how algorithms are developed and data about enforcement,” said Jessica Dheere, director of Ranking Digital Rights.

Social media platforms have a business incentive to take down terrorist content, and Section 230 is what allows them to do so without over-moderating, Sternberg said. “No one wants to see this horrible extremist content on digital platforms, especially the services themselves.”

Holding platforms liable for all speech that they carry could have a chilling effect on speech by motivating platforms to err on the side of removing content, Van Alstyne said.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023, 12 Noon ET – Section 230, Google, Twitter and the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will soon hear two blockbuster cases involving Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act: Gonzalez v. Google on February 21, and  Twitter v. Taamneh on February 22. Both of these cases ask if tech companies can be held liable for terrorist content on their platforms. Also in play: Laws in Florida and in Texas (both on hold during the course of litigation) that would limit online platforms’ ability to moderate content. In a recent brief, Google argued that denying Section 230 protections for platforms “could have devastating spillover effects.” In advance of Broadband Breakfast’s Big Tech & Speech Summit on March 9, this Broadband Breakfast Live Online event will consider Section 230 and the Supreme Court.

Panelists:

  • Chris Marchese, Counsel, NetChoice
  • Ari Cohn, Free Speech Counsel, TechFreedom
  • Jessica Dheere, Director, Ranking Digital Rights
  • Ali Sternburg, Vice President of Information Policy, Computer & Communications Industry Association
  • Marshall Van Alstyne, Questrom Chair Professor, Boston University
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

Chris Marchese analyzes technology-related legislative and regulatory issues at both the federal and state level. His portfolio includes monitoring and analyzing proposals to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, antitrust enforcement, and potential barriers to free speech and free enterprise on the internet. Before joining NetChoice in 2019, Chris worked as a law clerk at the U.S. Chamber Litigation Center, where he analyzed legal issues relevant to the business community, including state-court decisions that threatened traditional liability rules.

Ari Cohn is Free Speech Counsel at TechFreedom. A nationally recognized expert in First Amendment law, he was previously the Director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and has worked in private practice at Mayer Brown LLP and as a solo practitioner, and was an attorney with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Ari graduated cum laude from Cornell Law School, and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Jessica Dheere is the director of Ranking Digital Rights, and co-authored RDR’s spring 2020 report “Getting to the Source of Infodemics: It’s the Business Model.” An affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, she is also founder, former executive director, and board member of the Arab digital rights organization SMEX, and in 2019, she launched the CYRILLA Collaborative, which catalogs global digital rights law and case law. She is a graduate of Princeton University and the New School.

Ali Sternburg is Vice President of Information Policy at the Computer & Communications Industry Association, where she focuses on intermediary liability, copyright, and other areas of intellectual property. Ali joined CCIA during law school in 2011, and previously served as Senior Policy Counsel, Policy Counsel, and Legal Fellow. She is also an Inaugural Fellow at the Internet Law & Policy Foundry.

Marshall Van Alstyne (@InfoEcon) is the Questrom Chair Professor at Boston University. His work explores how IT affects firms, innovation, and society with an emphasis on business platforms. He co-authored the international best seller Platform Revolution and his research influence ranks among the top 2% of all scientists globally.

Drew Clark (moderator) is CEO of Breakfast Media LLC. He has led the Broadband Breakfast community since 2008. An early proponent of better broadband, better lives, he initially founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for broadband data. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over the leading media company advocating for higher-capacity internet everywhere through topical, timely and intelligent coverage. Clark also served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative.

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook.

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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Section 230

Section 230 Interpretation Debate Heats Up Ahead of Landmark Supreme Court Case

Panelists disagreed over the merits of Section 230’s protections and the extent to which they apply.

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Screenshot of speakers at the Federalist Society webinar

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2023 — With less than a month to go before the Supreme Court hears a case that could dramatically alter internet platform liability protections, speakers at a Federalist Society webinar on Tuesday were sharply divided over the merits and proper interpretation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Gonzalez v. Google, which will go before the Supreme Court on Feb. 21, asks if Section 230 protects Google from liability for hosting terrorist content — and promoting that content via algorithmic recommendations.

If the Supreme Court agrees that “Section 230 does not protect targeted algorithmic recommendations, I don’t see a lot of the current social media platforms and the way they operate surviving,” said Ashkhen Kazaryan, a senior fellow at Stand Together.

Joel Thayer, president of the Digital Progress Institute, argued that the bare text of Section 230(c)(1) does not include any mention of the “immunities” often attributed to the statute, echoing an argument made by several Republican members of Congress.

“All the statute says is that we cannot treat interactive computer service providers or users — in this case, Google’s YouTube — as the publisher or speaker of a third-party post, such as a YouTube video,” Thayer said. “That is all. Warped interpretations from courts… have drastically moved away from the text of the statute to find Section 230(c)(1) as providing broad immunity to civil actions.”

Kazaryan disagreed with this claim, noting that the original co-authors of Section 230 — Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, and former Rep. Chris Cox, R-CA — have repeatedly said that Section 230 does provide immunity from civil liability under specific circumstances.

Wyden and Cox reiterated this point in a brief filed Thursday in support of Google, explaining that whether a platform is entitled to immunity under Section 230 relies on two prerequisite conditions. First, the platform must not be “responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of” the content in question, as laid out in Section 230(f)(3). Second, the case must be seeking to treat the platform “as the publisher or speaker” of that content, per Section 230(c)(1).

The statute co-authors argued that Google satisfied these conditions and was therefore entitled to immunity, even if their recommendation algorithms made it easier for users to find and consume terrorist content. “Section 230 protects targeted recommendations to the same extent that it protects other forms of content presentation,” they wrote.

Despite the support of Wyden and Cox, Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, predicted that the case was “not going to be a clean victory for Google.” And in addition to the upcoming Supreme Court cases, both Congress and President Joe Biden could potentially attempt to reform or repeal Section 230 in the near future, May added.

May advocated for substantial reforms to Section 230 that would narrow online platforms’ immunity. He also proposed that a new rule should rely on a “reasonable duty of care” that would both preserve the interests of online platforms and also recognize the harms that fall under their control.

To establish a good replacement for Section 230, policymakers must determine whether there is “a difference between exercising editorial control over content on the one hand, and engaging in conduct relating to the distribution of content on the other hand… and if so, how you would treat those different differently in terms of establishing liability,” May said.

No matter the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzalez v. Google, the discussion is already “shifting the Overton window on how we think about social media platforms,” Kazaryan said. “And we already see proposed regulation legislation on state and federal levels that addresses algorithms in many different ways and forms.”

Texas and Florida have already passed laws that would significantly limit social media platforms’ ability to moderate content, although both have been temporarily blocked pending litigation. Tech companies have asked the Supreme Court to take up the cases, arguing that the laws violate their First Amendment rights by forcing them to host certain speech.

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