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Senators Cruz and Hawley Demand Federal Trade Commission Investigation of Big Tech’s Content Moderation

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WASHINGTON, July 15, 2019 — Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley want the Federal Trade Commission to use its investigatory authority to demand internal documents and information pertaining to content moderation policies at major technology companies like Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, and to release those documents to the public.

In a Monday letter to all five members of the FTC, Cruz, R-Texas, and Hawley, R-Mo., ask that the commission use its authority to compel production of documents related to “conduct” and “practices” concerning “how major tech companies curate content.”

“We write to encourage the FTC to exercise its section 6(b) authority to investigate how major tech companies curate content. As you know, you do not need a law-enforcement purpose to investigate these companies. The law provides the tools needed to force companies to give you the information necessary to investigate their ‘conduct” and “practices,'” Cruz and Hawley wrote.

In their letter, Cruz and Hawley repeat a number of false and claims and conspiracy theories centered around the idea that tech companies are actively working to suppress speech by conservative.

“[T]hey actively censor some content and amplify other content based on algorithms and intentional decisions that are completely nontransparent,” they wrote, adding that “possibilities for abuse in this area are alarming and endless.”

Cruz and Hawley describe the routine process of content moderation and search result curation that search engines and social media platforms need to engage in to have a usable website as “censorship” that is “impossible to detect,” and repeat a claim made by President Trump that major technology companies are working to prevent his reelection by suppressing speech by his supporters. No evidence has been provided to justify this claim.

“By controlling the content we see, these companies are powerful enough to—at the very least—sway elections,” read the Cruz-Hawley statement. “And we’re told we have to be satisfied simply with trusting them not to abuse this immense power…. Companies that are this big and that have the potential to threaten democracy this much should not be allowed to curate content entirely without any transparency.”

“These companies can greatly influence democratic outcomes, yet they have no accountability to voters. They are not even accountable to their own customers because nobody knows how these companies curate content.”

Cruz and Hawley have repeatedly argued that tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter deliberately censor conservatives. They evidence in support of support statements appears to be limited to the fact that some users who identify as conservatives have been banned from these platform because of the platforms’ enforcement of terms of service against hate speech and harassment.

Hawley has routinely decried technology companies’ immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — which prevents them from being sued for statements made by a user of their platforms – as “a special giveaway from government.” Hawley incorrectly argues that Section 230 was conditioned upon a grant of political neutrality.

The freshman senator, who previously served as Missouri’s Attorney General, recently introduced legislation that would eliminate technology companies’ immunity under Section 230 unless they can prove to four of five FTC commissioners that their content moderation policies do not disproportionally impact conservatives.

Berin Szoka, president of free-market think tank TechFreedom, said Cruz and Hawley’s demand for an FTC probe raised them to “new heights in hypocrisy.”

“It is, once again, utterly nauseating to see two Harvard educated [Federalist Society] members pervert the First Amendment into a sword by which to promote the agenda of their political tribe, rather than a shield against government meddling,” said Szoka, who previously testified at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the subject.

(Photo of Sen. Josh Hawley and Sen. Ted Cruz via Campus Reform.)

 

Andrew Feinberg was 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.

FTC

Epic Games Settles with FTC for $520 Million

Epic’s $275 million penalty for alleged COPPA violation is the largest to date, according to the agency.

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Photo of Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., cropped, in July 2017 by Senate Democrats used with permission

WASHINGTON, December 19, 2022 – The Federal Trade Commission and Epic Games, creator of the popular video game Fortnite, have reached a pair of settlements, totaling $520 million, to resolve allegations that the developer violated the data privacy of child users and deceptively pushed in-app purchases, the agency announced Monday.

The FTC alleges that Epic violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by collecting the personal data of players under 13 years of age without properly notifying their parents or obtaining parental consent. In addition, the watchdog says children’s game settings by default allowed voice and text communication with other players, exposing them to harm.

“Children and teens have been bullied, threatened, harassed, and exposed to dangerous and psychologically traumatizing issues such as suicide while on Fortnite,” the FTC said.

Epic agreed to pay a $275 million penalty for its alleged COPPA violation, which is the largest penalty for breaking an FTC rule imposed to date, according to the agency. Epic agreed to the second penalty, $245 million, to resolve allegations that it manipulated users into purchasing in-game content through a confusing interface.

“Statutes written decades ago don’t specify how gaming ecosystems should operate. The laws have not changed, but their application has evolved and long-standing industry practices are no longer enough,” Epic said in an online post. “We accepted this agreement because we want Epic to be at the forefront of consumer protection and provide the best experience for our players.”

As a part of the settlements, Epic neither admitted nor denied the claims made against it.

The settlements immediately drew praise: “The FTC’s lawsuit against Epic proves we need stronger online privacy protections for children and teens,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in statement Monday. “Kids were bullied, harassed, and threated because Epic designed its games to let them communicate with strangers from all over the world. It’s time for Congress to step up for kids and protect them from online harms and to make sure we have a stronger FTC to enforce against bad actors.”

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FTC

FTC Forum Hears Evidence that U.S. Should Follow European Union Privacy Model

The agency is proposing to use its own authority to regulate tech platforms for their ‘commercial surveillance’.

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Photo of Digital Content Next CEO Jason Kint from C-SPAN

WASHINGTON September 15, 2022 – The Federal Trade Commission should consider adopting standards established by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation to force Big Tech platforms to consent to the use of their user’s personal information, according to the CEO of a digital content trade organization.

The FTC proposed last month to use its authority under Section 18 of the FTC Act to bring “commercial surveillance” – the act of entities collecting personal information and selling them to third-party data brokers – under its authority to further regulate technology platforms. Section 18 is a statute of the FTC Act that grants the commission the authority to implement trade regulation rules for businesses that use tactics that are considered “unfair” or harmful to consumers.

Digital Content Next CEO Jason Kint said during an FTC public hearing on the matter on September 8 that the EU’s GDPR model provides an established practice of requiring companies and organizations to get consent to the use of their data in these contexts.

“Having a pop-up come up [for consent] every time you visit the site…that’s entirely in line with users’ expectations,” Kint said. To comply with GDPR principles, websites shown to users in the United States must ask visitors if they consent to the collection of their data in part to cater certain products to them.

“The user doesn’t want it to happen where their data is being tracked by third parties,” Kint said.

“So, if you’re the party that they’re choosing to interact with for service, providing them that data is very different.”

In August, the FTC announced an rulemaking to consider commercial surveillance as a Section 18 violation of the FTC Act. It its notice seeking comment, the FTC asked questions about what companies should disclose, who would administer the disclosure agreements, and if the FTC should impose limitations on the mechanisms companies use to hide their surveillance practices.

On July 20, the Senate Commerce Committee passed comprehensive privacy legislation a restricting collection and transfer of personal data of U.S. citizens without consent.

The measure has not yet passed the House, but in responding to the August announcement, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said that it is the responsibility of Congress, not the FTC, “to pass comprehensive federal privacy legislation.”

There are currently more than 120,000 comments on this issue. The FTC is still collecting public statements on this issue until October 21.

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Antitrust

Republican FTC Commissioner Criticizes Biden Economic Officials as Detrimental to Agency

Commissioner Christine Wilson attributes poor results of FTC staff satisfaction surveys to the officials’ leadership.

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Photo of Christine Wilson, Randolph May, Noah Phillips and Maureen Ohlhausen

WASHINGTON, May 9, 2022 – On Friday Republican commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission Christine Wilson expanded upon released remarks criticizing the leadership of economic officials chosen by President Joe Biden as detrimental to the functioning of her agency and staff.

Wilson pointed to recently administered surveys of FTC staff on satisfaction in their jobs which showed historically poor results for the commission, saying attitudes towards the commission and its work peddled by its Chair Lina Khan, former commissioner and current director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Rohit Chopra and Biden’s special assistant for technology and competition policy Tim Wu are largely to blame for low staff morale.

“We saw Chair Khan’s arrival and a complete disregard for the rule of law and due process, not to mention complete disregard for staff,” said Wilson.

“We saw Commissioner Rohit Chopra arrive at the FTC and begin excoriating the agency and the commission and the staff as being lax and feckless for the last 40 years.”

Speaking at the Free State Foundation’s Annual Policy Conference with fellow Republican Commissioner Noah Phillips and former Republican chairwoman of the commission Maureen Ohlhausen, Wilson cast the commission as an entity in disarray.

She revealed a workplace where commissioners have often been given very little notice on items they will be considering on the agenda of the commission.

Ohlhausen noted a decrease in bipartisan activity from the commission that she felt was present as a long-lasting legacy of commissions past during her tenure as chair, and Wilson described “disdain and marginalization of staff by current leadership” as harmful to the environment at the commission.

Drawing on her recent remarks, Wilson hypothesized that new leadership’s economic worldview draws heavily on concepts from academic Marxism and critical legal studies, a school of thought of which the Republican-maligned critical race theory is an offshoot.

She states that these theories largely play into the view of new leadership that the FTC in the past has not brought nearly enough action to protect consumers.

Also on Friday, Wilson emphasized the need for federal privacy legislation and said she has heard of a “concerted push” in Congress for such legislation to pass soon.

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