Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Big Tech on the defensive

Free Speech | Internet giants face scrutiny over alleged bias in moderating content
by Steve West
Posted 11/03/20, 05:06 pm

Big Tech CEOs received yet another tongue-lashing from Republican lawmakers last week. During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, the senators accused them of trying to influence elections by censoring content from conservative users.

The latest flap involved a warning label Facebook added to an Oct. 14 New York Post story about emails with potentially damaging information on Joe Biden’s previous dealings with Ukraine. The story cited emails taken from a laptop suspected of belonging to Biden’s son Hunter. Twitter also blocked users from posting and sharing the story and froze the Post’s Twitter account for nearly two weeks for refusing to remove the post. It reversed course and restored the tweet with the link to the story on Friday.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., accused Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg of “picking winners and losers” and said the company inserted itself into the issue of free speech. “There is a pattern of subjective manipulation of information,” she said.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was even more blunt, accusing Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey of “behaving like a Democratic super PAC” and “silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs.”

A 2017 Stanford Graduate School of Business study surveying 600 elite technology company leaders and founders discovered Silicon Valley is one of the strongest Democratic-voting areas of the nation, with Big Tech workers more liberal than most Democrats. A study from the Center for Responsive Politics found Big Tech workers overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates in the 2020 elections, giving them 90 percent of their donations.

Republicans have tried to address internet companies’ outsized influence before but struggled to rein in bias. As private companies, Google, Facebook, and Twitter are not subject to the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee.

Efforts to constrain the internet giants have targeted two fronts. Senate Republicans have introduced at least two bills to limit the platforms’ immunity under a provision of law known as Section 230, part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. It shields internet companies from the liability that newspapers and other media face if they publish harmful content. Both the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission have supported efforts to revisit Section 230 immunity.

Additionally, the federal government has filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google over its market-dominating search engine. And the Federal Trade Commission may file charges against Facebook for its de facto monopoly this month, The Washington Post reported.

Some users have decided to leave biased platforms.

“This solution, though satisfying, has a problem of its own: It will make the ‘big sort’ even bigger,” wrote William Voegeli, the senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, in a lament about the further political segregation of cyberspace. And leaving cuts short the necessary public discussion about social media companies and user responsibility, said Jason Thacker of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention: “It’s so easy in the age of social media to treat our ‘enemies’ as faceless avatars, and to act as though they are not real people created in God’s image with infinite value and worth.”

Whatever the solution, lawmakers need will and wisdom to address the problem. So will Big Tech CEOs. And, as Thacker reminds us, the problem is not just with the platforms but with us, the users.

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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