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Will the House Judiciary Committee Fairly Question Google CEO Sundar Pichai at Tuesday Hearing?

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WASHINGTON, December 10, 2018 — When Google CEO Sundar Pichai raises his right hand before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday morning, it’s possible the ensuing hearing will be a sober and judicious look into his company’s data collection practices.

But Pichai is far more likely to become the latest punching bag for House members – of both parties – eager to perpetuate the unproven claims that technology companies are acting to systematically censor conservatives.

Both House and Senate committees have convened hearings on social media companies’ practices over the past year. The hearings haven’t resulted in any bombshell revelations or explosive testimony. But Republicans’ accusations of censorship – or at least tilting the scales in search engine results – have been a constant drumbeat from members of Congress and witnesses.

One Silicon Valley representative dubbed the claims ‘obviously false’

One veteran member of House Judiciary, Rep Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., called conservatives claims of censorship “obviously false.”

“I can’t speak for my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, but this appears to me to be part of an effort to rile up their base, that is anti-intellectual, anti-technology, and anti ‘elite,’ by saying that those fancy-pants in Silicon Valley are trying to keep them from hearing our message,” said Lofgren.

“For a group that is in charge of the entire government, they do a lot of whining as victims,” she said.

Her colleague, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., told BroadbandBreakfast that he is hopeful that Tuesday’s hearing will result in an “honest and thorough discussion about the role of these large social media companies.”

“A lot of the [previous] hearings have turned into a free-for-all where everybody complains about perceived or real transgressions by social media companies against different political persuasions, and the Republicans have specialized in that,” Raskin said.

“We need to have an honest and thorough discussion about the role of these large social media companies,” he said. “That basic dilemma that runs through all those conflicts and we have not resolved ourselves as a society on that basic question.”

Is the enforcement of internet companies’ terms of service ‘censorship’?

Raskin said that some conservatives are confusing technology companies’ enforcement of their terms of service with censorship because of an overlap between what some consider conservative values and what many people consider hate speech.

President Trump’s defense of the white nationalists who participated in the August 2017 Unite the Right rally is responsible for blurring the lines between conservatives and the white nationalists who count themselves as part of Trump’s base, Raskin said.

“If you have the equivalent of a Charlottesville march online, and Facebook or Twitter doesn’t want to host it, you have to find somewhere else to conduct your internet hate rally,” he added.

But based on the experience of one previous hearing, Raskin hopes that there is room for agreement on both sides of the aisle to have a serious conversation and not get hijacked by partisan bickering.

Previous hearings have not squarely addressed the ‘conceptual’ debate on this topic

At a previous hearing, members on both sides of the aisle agreed that lawmakers lack the “proper conceptual categories” needed to seriously address the problem of whether big tech companies are “special private actors who deserve different treatment because of their importance to the economy”

“That is the important and interesting conceptual question that we need to put on the table, and we dance around it when we just dive into particular controversies regarding this or that episode.”

The dual issues of how regulators should treat technology companies, and how  technology companies treat conservatives caught the attention of President Donald Trump in late August, when he  threatened three of the largest technology and social media companies in the United States for allegedly working to censor conservatives, despite offering no verifiable evidence that any such censorship is taking place.

“I think Google is really taking advantage of a lot of people, and I think that’s a very serious thing and a very serious charge. I think what Google and others are doing, if you look at what’s going on at Twitter, what’s going on on Facebook, they better be careful because you can’t do that to people, you can’t do it,” Trump said during an August 28 Oval Office meeting with FIFA President Gianni Infantino.

“I think that Google and Twitter and Facebook are really treading on very very troubled territory and they have to be careful, it’s not fair to large portions of the population,” said Trump.

Trump’s remarks came on the same day that National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told reporters that the administration was “looking into” Google’s operations.

Though BroadbandBreakfast inquired as to the result of whatever investigation may have been conducted — and whether Trump still thinks Google is “taking advantage of a lot of people” — a White House spokesperson had not yet responded by our deadline.

(Photo of Google CEO Sundar Pichai by Maurizio Pesce used with permission.)

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Free Speech

Panel Hears Opposing Views on Content Moderation Debate

Some agreed there is egregious information that should be downranked on search platforms.

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Screenshot of Renee DiResta, research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory.

WASHINGTON, September 14, 2022 – Panelists wrangled over how technology platforms should handle content moderation at an event hosted by the Lincoln Network Friday, with one arguing that search engines should neutralize misinformation that cause direct, “tangible” harms and another advocating an online content moderation standard that doesn’t discriminate on viewpoints.

Debate about what to do with certain content on technology platforms has picked up steam since former President Donald Trump was removed last year from platforms including Facebook and Twitter for allegedly inciting the January 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol.

Search engines generally moderate content algorithmically, prioritizing certain results over others. Most engines, like Google, prioritize results from institutions generally considered to be credible, such as universities and government agencies.

That can be a good thing, said Renee DiResta, research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory. If search engines allow scams or medical misinformation to headline search results, she argued, “tangible” material or physical harms will result.

The internet pioneered communications from “one-to-many” broadcast media – e.g., television and radio – to a “many-to-many” model, said DiResta. She argued that “many-to-many” interactions create social frictions and make possible the formation of social media mobs.

At the beginning of the year, Georgia Republic representative Marjorie Taylor Greene was permanently removed from Twitter for allegedly spreading Covid-19 misinformation, the same reason Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was removed from Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube.

Lincoln Network senior fellow Antonio Martinez endorsed a more permissive content moderation strategy that – excluding content that incites imminent, lawless action – is tolerant of heterodox speech. “To think that we can epistemologically or even technically go in and establish capital-T Truth at scale is impossible,” he said.

Trump has said to be committed to a platform of open speech with the creation of his social media website Truth Social. Other platforms, such as social media site Parler and video-sharing website Rumble, have purported to allow more speech than the incumbents. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk previously committed to buying Twitter because of its policies prohibiting certain speech, though he now wants out of that commitment.

Alex Feerst, CEO of digital content curator Murmuration Labs, said that free-speech aphorisms – such as, “The cure for bad speech is more speech” – may no longer hold true given the volume of speech enabled by the internet.

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Big Tech

Twitter Whistleblower Says Company Needs to Work to Permanently Delete User Data

Meanwhile, Twitter shareholders approved a deal to sell the company to Elon Musk, who wants out.

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Photo of Peiter Zatko at Tuesday's Senate Judiciary hearing

WASHINGTON, September 14, 2022 – Twitter’s former head of security and now company whistleblower told a Senate Judiciary committee Tuesday that Twitter must put more resources into trying to permanently delete user data upon the elimination of accounts to preserve the security and privacy of users.

Peiter Zatko, who was fired from Twitter in January due to performance issues, blew the whistle on the company last month by alleging Twitter’s lack of sufficient security and privacy safeguards poses a national security risk. He alleged that the company does not delete user data when accounts are deleted.

On Tuesday, Zatko told the Senate Judiciary committee that the company needs to take the step of ensuring that the personal information of users are deleted when they destroy their accounts.

He alleged company engineers can access any user data on Twitter, including home addresses, phone numbers and contact lists, and sell the data without company executives knowing.

“I continued to believe in the mission of the company and root for its success, but that success can only happen if the privacy and security of Twitter users and the public are protected,” Zatko said.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Twitter investors approved SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s takeover of the company, despite the billionaire trying to back out of the deal allegedly over a lack of information about the number of fake accounts on the platform. The company and Musk are currently in court battling over whether he must follow through on the deal.

Musk’s lawyer has asked the court to delay the trial — scheduled for mid-October — to allow his client to investigate the whistleblower’s claims, according to reporting from Reuters.

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Big Tech

A White House Event, Biden Administration Seeks Regulation of Big Tech

Participants voiced concerns over alleged abuses by big tech companies.

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Photo of President Joe Biden

WASHINGTON, September 9, 2022 – President Joe Biden on Thursday called for a federal privacy standard, Section 230 reform, and increased antitrust scrutiny against big tech.

“Although tech platforms can help keep us connected, create a vibrant marketplace of ideas, and open up new opportunities for bringing products and services to market, they can also divide us and wreak serious real-world harms,” according to a White House readout from the administration’s listening session on Thursday.

Participants at the White House event voiced concerns over alleged abuses by big tech companies.

A new data privacy regime?

The Biden administration called for “clear limits on the ability to collect, use, transfer, and maintain our personal data.” It also endorsed bipartisan congressional efforts to establish a national privacy standard.

Last June, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., introduced the American Data Privacy and Protection Act. The bill gained substantial bipartisan support and was advanced by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in July.

In the absence of federal privacy laws, several states drafted privacy laws of their own. The Golden State, for instance, implemented the California Consumer Privacy Act in 2018. The CCPA’s protections were extended by the California Privacy Rights Act of 2020, which goes into effect in January 2023.

Biden maintains his position seeking changes to Section 23o

“Tech platforms currently have special legal protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that broadly shield them from liability even when they host or disseminate illegal, violent conduct or materials,” argued the White House document.

Biden’s hostility towards Section 230 is not new. Section 230 protects internet platforms from most legal liability that might otherwise result from third party–generated content. For example, although an online publication may be guilty of libel for a news story it publishes, it cannot be held liable for slanderous reader posts in its comments section.

Critics of Section 230 say that it unfairly shields rogue social media companies from accountability for their misdeeds. And in addition to Biden and other Democrats, many Republicans are dislike the provision. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, argue that platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube discriminate against conservative speech and therefore should not benefit from such federal legal protections.

Section 230’s proponents say that it is the foundation of online free speech.

Ramping up antitrust

“Today…a small number of dominant Internet platforms use their power to exclude market entrants,” Thursday’s press release said. This sentiment is consonant with the administration’s antitrust policies to date. Indeed, Lina Khan, chair of the Federal Trade Commission, was a vocal antitruster in the academy and has greatly expanded the scope of the agency’s antitrust efforts since her appointment in 2021.

In the Senate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, is sponsoring the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, a bill that bans large online platforms from engaging in putatively “anticompetitive” business practices. The measure was approved by the Judiciary Committee earlier this year, and, though it was stalled over the summer to make way for other Democratic legislative priorities, it may come for a vote this fall.

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