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Jim Jordan Demands Social Media Documents from Biden Administration

Two Republican-led states sued the Biden administration over alleged collusion with tech companies.

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Photo of Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, by Gage Skidmore used with permission

WASHINGTON, February 8, 2023 — House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, on Wednesday asked the Department of Justice to provide copies of all documents that have been produced in an ongoing lawsuit over alleged government collusion with social media companies.

“Congress has an important interest in protecting and advancing fundamental free speech principles, including by examining how the Executive Branch coordinates with or coerces private actors to suppress First Amendment-protected speech,” Jordan wrote in a letter to Brian Boynton, the principal deputy assistant attorney general in the civil division.

The attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana filed suit against President Joe Biden and other government officials in May 2022, claiming that the administration had worked with tech companies to “censor free speech and propagandize the masses.”

Other officials named in the lawsuit include former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and former Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci. The suit also names the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other individuals and agencies.

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey in January released a series of emails between White House officials and social media companies, arguing that they proved the Biden administration had been attempting to “censor opposing viewpoints on major social media platforms.”

Jordan requested that all other documents produced by the Department of Justice as part of the litigation be provided to the Judiciary Committee no later than Feb. 22.

“As Congress continues to examine how to best protect Americans’ fundamental freedoms, the documents discovered and produced during the Missouri v. Biden litigation are necessary to assist Congress in understanding the problem and evaluating potential legislative reforms,” he wrote.

Jordan is at the forefront of growing Republican hostility toward tech companies. In January, he listed “reining in Big Tech’s censorship of free speech” as a key issue to be addressed by the House Judiciary Committee during the coming year.

And in December, Jordan sent letters to the heads of Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Meta and Microsoft to “request more information about the nature and extent of your companies’ collusion with the Biden Administration.”

Reporter Em McPhie studied communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a managing editor for the student newspaper. In addition to agency and freelance marketing experience, she has reported extensively on Section 230, big tech, and rural broadband access. She is a founding board member of Code Open Sesame, an organization that teaches computer programming skills to underprivileged children.

Social Media

Congress Grills TikTok CEO Over Risks to Youth Safety and China

House lawmakers presented a united front against TikTok as calls for a national ban gain momentum.

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Screenshot of TikTok CEO Shou Chew courtesy of CSPAN

WASHINGTON, March 24, 2023 — TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced bipartisan hostility from House lawmakers during a high-profile hearing on Thursday, struggling to alleviate concerns about the platform’s safety and security risks amid growing calls for the app to be banned from the United States altogether.

For more than five hours, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee lobbed criticisms at TikTok, often leaving Chew little or no time to address their critiques.

“TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation,” Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., told Chew at the start of the hearing. “Your platform should be banned. I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome.”

“Shou came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but, unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding,” TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said in a statement after the hearing.

In a viral TikTok video posted Tuesday, and again in his opening statement, Chew noted that the app has over 150 million active monthly users in the United States. TikTok has also become a place where “close to 5 million American businesses — mostly small businesses — go to find new customers and to fuel their growth,” he said.

But McMorris Rodgers argued that the platform’s significant reach only “emphasizes the urgency for Congress to act.”

Lawmakers condemn TikTok’s impact on youth safety and mental health

One of the top concerns highlighted by both Republicans and Democrats was the risk TikTok poses to the wellbeing of children and teens.

“Research has found that TikTok’s addictive algorithms recommend videos to teens that create and exacerbate feelings of emotional distress, including videos promoting suicide, self-harm and eating disorders,” said Ranking Member Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

Chew emphasized TikTok’s commitment to removing explicitly harmful or violative content. The company is also working with entities such as the Boston Children’s Hospital to find models for content that might harm young viewers if shown too frequently, even if the content is not inherently negative — for example, videos of extreme fitness regimens, Chew explained.

In addition, Chew listed several safeguards that TikTok has recently implemented for underage users, such as daily default time limits and the prevention of private messaging for users under 16.

However, few lawmakers seemed interested in these measures, with some noting that they appeared to lack enforceability. Others emphasized the tangible costs of weak safety policies, pointing to multiple youth deaths linked to the app.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., shared the story of a 16-year-old boy who died by suicide after being served hundreds of TikTok videos glorifying suicidal ideation, self-harm and depression — even though such content was unrelated to his search history, according to a lawsuit filed by his parents against the platform.

At the hearing, Bilirakis underscored his concern by playing a series of TikTok videos with explicit descriptions of suicide, accompanied by messages such as “death is a gift” and “Player Tip: K!ll Yourself.”

“Your company destroyed their lives,” Bilirakis told Chew, gesturing toward the teen’s parents. “Your technology is literally leading to death, Mr. Chew.”

Watch Rep. Bilirakis’ keynote address from the Big Tech & Speech Summit.

Other lawmakers noted that this death was not an isolated incident. “There are those on this committee, including myself, who believe that the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in psychological warfare through Tik Tok to deliberately influence U.S. children,” said Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga.

TikTok CEO emphasizes U.S. operations, denies CCP ties

Listing several viral “challenges” encouraging dangerous behaviors and substance abuse, Carter questioned why TikTok “consistently fails to identify and moderate these kinds of harmful videos” — and claimed that no such content was present on Douyin, the version of the app available in China.

Screenshot of Rep. Buddy Carter courtesy of CSPAN

Chew urged legislators to compare TikTok’s practices with those of other U.S. social media companies, rather than a version of the platform operating in an entirely different regulatory environment. “This is an industry challenge for all of us here,” he said.

Douyin heavily restricts political and controversial content in order to comply with China’s censorship regime, while the U.S. currently grants online platforms broad liability for third-party content.

In response to repeated accusations of CCP-driven censorship, particularly regarding the Chinese government’s human rights abuses against the Uyghur population, Chew maintained that related content “is available on our platform — you can go and search it.”

“We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government,” he repeatedly stated.

A TikTok search for “Uygher genocide” on Thursday morning primarily displayed videos that were critical of the Chinese government, Broadband Breakfast found. The search also returned a brief description stating that China “has committed a series of ongoing human rights abuses against Uyghers and other ethnic and religious minorities,” drawn from Wikipedia and pointing users to the U.S.-based website’s full article on the topic.

TikTok concerns bolster calls for Section 230 reform

Although much of the hearing was specifically targeted toward TikTok, some lawmakers used those concerns to bolster an ongoing Congressional push for Section 230 reform.

“Last year, a federal judge in Pennsylvania found that Section 230 protected TikTok from being held responsible for the death of a 10-year-old girl who participated in a blackout challenge,” said Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio. “This company is a picture-perfect example of why this committee in Congress needs to take action immediately to amend Section 230.”

In response, Chew referenced Latta’s earlier remarks about Section 230’s historical importance for online innovation and growth.

“As you pointed out, 230 has been very important for freedom of expression on the internet,” Chew said. “[Free expression] is one of the commitments we have given to this committee and our users, and I do think it’s important to preserve that. But companies should be raising the bar on safety.”

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah., asked if TikTok’s use of algorithmic recommendations should forfeit the company’s Section 230 protections — echoing the question at the core of Gonzalez v. Google, which was argued before the Supreme Court in February.

Other inquiries were more pointed. Chew declined to answer a question from Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, about whether “censoring history and historical facts and current events should be protected by Section 230’s good faith requirement.”

Weber’s question seemed to incorrectly suggest that the broad immunity provided by Section 230 (c)(1) is conditioned on the “good faith” referenced in in part (c)(2)(A) of the statute.

Ranking member says ongoing data privacy initiative is unacceptable

Chew frequently pointed to TikTok’s “Project Texas” initiative as a solution to a wide range of data privacy concerns. “The bottom line is this: American data, stored on American soil, by an American company, overseen by American personnel,” he said.

All U.S. user data is now routed by default to Texas-based company Oracle, Chew added, and the company aims to delete legacy data currently stored in Virginia and Singapore by the end of the year.

Several lawmakers pointed to a Thursday Wall Street Journal article in which China’s Commerce Ministry reportedly said that a sale of TikTok would require exporting technology, and therefore would be subject to approval from the Chinese government.

When asked if Chinese government approval was required for Project Texas, Chew replied, “We do not believe so.”

But many legislators remained skeptical. “I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do, and so this idea — this ‘Project Texas’ — is simply not acceptable,” Pallone said.

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Free Speech

Additional Content Moderation for Section 230 Protection Risks Reducing Speech on Platforms: Judge

People will migrate from platforms with too stringent content moderation measures.

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Photo of Douglas Ginsburg by Barbara Potter/Free to Choose Media

WASHINGTON, March 13, 2023 – Requiring companies to moderate more content as a condition of Section 230 legal liability protections runs the risk of alienating users from platforms and discouraging communications, argued a judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeal last week.

“The criteria for deletion are vague and difficult to parse,” Douglas Ginsburg, a Ronald Reagan appointee, said at a Federalist Society event on Wednesday. “Some of the terms are inherently difficult to define and policing what qualifies as hate speech is often a subjective determination.”

“If content moderation became very rigorous, it is obvious that users would depart from platforms that wouldn’t run their stuff,” Ginsburg added. “And they will try to find more platforms out there that will give them a voice. So, we’ll have more fragmentation and even less communication.”

Ginsburg noted that the large technology platforms already moderate a massive amount of content, adding additional moderation would be fairly challenging.

“Twitter, YouTube and Facebook  remove millions of posts and videos based on those criteria alone,” Ginsburg noted. “YouTube gets 500 hours of video uploaded every minute, 3000 minutes of video coming online every minute. So the task of moderating this is obviously very challenging.”

John Samples, a member of Meta’s Oversight Board – which provides direction for the company on content – suggested Thursday that out-of-court dispute institutions for content moderation may become the preferred method of settlement.

The United States may adopt European processes in the future as it takes the lead in moderating big tech, claimed Samples.

“It would largely be a private system,” he said, and could unify and centralize social media moderation across platforms and around the world, referring to the European Union’s Digital Services Act that went into effect in November of 2022, which requires platforms to remove illegal content and ensure that users can contest removal of their content.

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Section 230

Section 230 Shuts Down Conversation on First Amendment, Panel Hears

The law prevents discussion on how the first amendment should be applied in a new age of technology, says expert.

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Photo of Ron Yokubaitis of Texas.net, Ashley Johnson of Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Emma Llanso of Center for Democracy and Technology, Matthew Bergman of Social Media Victims Law Center, and Chris Marchese of Netchoice (left to right)

WASHINGTON, March 9, 2023 – Section 230 as it is written shuts down the conversation about the first amendment, claimed experts in a debate at Broadband Breakfast’s Big Tech & Speech Summit Thursday.  

Matthew Bergman, founder of the Social Media Victims Law Center, suggested that section 230 avoids discussion on the appropriate weighing of costs and benefits that exist in allowing big tech companies litigation immunity in moderation decisions on their platforms. 

We need to talk about what level of the first amendment is necessary in a new world of technology, said Bergman. This discussion happens primarily in an open litigation process, he said, which is not now available for those that are caused harm by these products. 

Photo of Ron Yokubaitis of Texas.net, Ashley Johnson of Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Emma Llanso of Center for Democracy and Technology, Matthew Bergman of Social Media Victims Law Center, and Chris Marchese of Netchoice (left to right)

All companies must have reasonable care, Bergman argued. Opening litigation doesn’t mean that all claims are necessarily viable, only that the process should work itself out in the courts of law, he said. 

Eliminating section 230 could lead to online services being “over correct” in moderating speech which could lead to suffocating social reform movements organized on those platforms, argued Ashley Johnson of research institution, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. 

Furthermore, the burden of litigation would fall disproportionally on the companies that have fewer resources to defend themselves, she continued. 

Bergman responded, “if a social media platform is facing a lot of lawsuits because there are a lot of kids who have been hurt through the negligent design of that platform, why is that a bad thing?” People who are injured have the right by law to seek redress against the entity that caused that injury, Bergman said. 

Emma Llanso of the Center for Democracy and Technology suggested that platforms would change the way they fundamentally operate to avoid threat of litigation if section 230 were reformed or abolished, which could threaten freedom of speech for its users. 

It is necessary for the protection of the first amendment that the internet consists of many platforms with different content moderation policies to ensure that all people have a voice, she said. 

To this, Bergman argued that there is a distinction between algorithms that suggest content that users do not want to see – even that content that exists unbeknownst to the seeker of that information – and ensuring speech is not censored.  

It is a question concerning the faulty design of a product and protecting speech, and courts are where this balancing act should take place, said Bergman. 

This comes days after law professionals urged Congress to amend the statue to specify that it applies only to free speech, rather than the negligible design of product features that promote harmful speech. The discussion followed a Supreme Court decision to provide immunity to Google for recommending terrorist videos on its video platform YouTube.   

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