Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

No easy cure for Big Tech bias

First Amendment | The U.S. Senate wants to do something about social media censorship, but what?
by Steve West
Posted 4/16/19, 05:35 pm

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators agreed last week that someone should hold tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google accountable for the roles they play as gatekeepers of public speech. But who should do it and how remains a source of disagreement and misunderstanding.

At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution on Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called out Silicon Valley tech giants for suppressing conservative voices. In his opening remarks, Cruz pointed to a “consistent pattern of political bias and censorship on the part of Big Tech.” He cited the enormous power that tech companies have—all without any transparency or accountability.

“Not only does Big Tech have the power to silence voices with which they disagree, but Big Tech also has the power to collate a person’s feed so that they only receive the news that comports with their political agenda,” Cruz said.

Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said claims of conservative bias by social media platforms have been “disproven time and again.” Tech companies have given conservatives more favorable treatment, she claimed, overcompensating for criticism. Hirono instead raised concerns about internet threats by alt-right extremists, Russian interference in U.S. elections, and damaging misinformation purveyed online.

Daphne Keller, a director at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society, wrote that the question of political bias by internet platforms “is hard to answer because we don’t have nearly enough information to see the big picture and know what speech platforms are taking down. For the most part, we only find out when the speakers themselves learn that their posts or accounts have disappeared and choose to call public attention to it.”

Numerous conservatives have made claims of social media censorship, from the movie Unplanned having its Twitter account briefly shut down to Facebook labeling columns by conservative commentators as spam. Platform executives generally respond by admitting that technical mistakes were made—an imperfect algorithm or human error—while denying any systemic bias. They say electronic algorithms used to monitor and filter content are applied in a neutral manner. Yet, during the hearing, Carlos Monje Jr., Twitter’s director of public policy, apologized to Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., for pulling her pro-life ad during the 2018 campaign: “We made a mistake on your ad. I apologize.”

Solutions to bias in Big Tech are elusive. Cruz focused on three: anti-monopoly laws, fraud settlements, and reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to qualify the immunity it affords internet platforms for user-posted content. Breaking up monopolies like Standard Oil and AT&T took long and arduous litigation, fraud remedies are piecemeal, and adding a viewpoint-neutrality requirement for social media platforms—like that proposed by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.—might not be legal.

Keller pointed out that multiple lawsuits against tech firms have failed: “A law regulating platforms’ content removals could also very easily violate ordinary internet users’ First Amendment rights by effectively using government power to pick winners and losers among our tweets, Facebook posts, or YouTube videos.”

Cruz acknowledged at the hearing that the remedy for bias is complicated: “Nobody—at least nobody in their right mind—wants to see a government speech police. No one wants to see the federal government regulating what is allowed to be said.”

Alliance Defending Freedom Alliance Defending Freedom The Tennes family

Not-so-friendly farmers market

A federal court in Kalamazoo, Mich., on Friday heard the case of Steve Tennes, owner of Country Mill Farms, who was shut out of a local farmers market over his religious beliefs.

Tennes and his family own an apple farm in Charlotte, Mich. In August 2016, someone posted on the farm’s Facebook page asking if the owners would host a same-sex wedding. Steve and his wife responded to the post explaining they were Catholic and their beliefs didn’t allow them to. Tennes told The Washington Times that they also decline to host bachelor and bachelorette parties.

That December, city officials in the nearby town of East Lansing began trying to push the Tennes family out of the farmers market where they had sold their produce since 2010. First, officials said that there would be protests if the farm had a booth at the market. When the protests didn’t materialize, the city didn’t invite Country Mill Farms to come to the market. The Tennes family still filled out an application and submitted it.

East Lansing passed a new policy that required vendors at the farmers market to comply with a the city nondiscrimination ordinance. Tennes then won a temporary injunction in 2017 that allowed him to stay at the farmers market.

“All Americans should be free to live and speak according to their deeply held religious beliefs without fear of government punishment,” said Kate Anderson, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the Tenneses. ADF argues that the officials targeted Tennes and displayed animosity and bias toward his faith. A city council member called Tennes’ beliefs “ridiculous, horrible, hateful things” in a public debate. Other city officials compared his beliefs to defending racism.

Both sides in the case are looking to U.S. District Judge Paul Mahoney to make a decision before the 2019 market opens in June. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Becket Becket Chad and Melissa Buck, parents who adopted a child through St. Vincent Catholic Charities

Faith-based adoption fight continues

The religious liberty legal firm Becket just filed a new case in federal court against the state of Michigan and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the rights of faith-based adoption agencies to continue placing children. A settlement between the state and the American Civil Liberties Union last month left the status of faith-based agencies like St. Vincent Catholic Charities up in the air. The settlement ended a 2017 lawsuit against the state by four women who said faith-based child-placing agencies declined to work with them because of their views about marriage and sexuality.

Becket’s new lawsuit, filed on behalf of St. Vincent and adoptive families, aims to defend these agencies’ ability to continue working with the state to place children. —R.L.A.

Flagging down Chick-fil-A

While some cities and colleges have banned Chick-fil-A outright over the fast-food chain’s Christian values—which in their minds translate into “hateful” anti-LGBT policies and attitudes—San Jose, Calif., has chosen a different tack. With a new Chick-fil-A scheduled to open next month at San Jose International Airport, the City Council voted last week to protest the selling of chicken sandwiches and waffle fries to hungry travelers by placing rainbow (representing gay rights) and pink, blue, and white (transgender rights) flags nearby, according to NBC News. Ken Yeager, the first openly gay elected official in Santa Clara County, proposed the idea.

The City Council in San Antonio, Texas, voted to block Chick-fil-A from its airport earlier this month, while plans to open a location at Buffalo Niagara International Airport in New York state were recently nixed, as well. —R.L.A.

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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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  • Laura W
    Posted: Tue, 04/23/2019 05:43 am

    Regarding tech company bias, maybe a law could be passed to require that any such practices as "shadow-banning", restricting a post's reach, suspending an account, etc., must be clearly disclosed to the operator of the account affected at the time the penalty is applied. Additionally, the acount owner must be told which piece or pieces of content violated the company's policy, and they must be told which article or articles of the policy they have violated. There must also be clear information available about the company's appeal process, or the lack thereof.

    Or something along those lines--I'm not a lawyer. But I think this would keep the government from dictating which speech private companies should and shouldn't allow, while still ensuring that consumers have enough information to make an informed decision about whether to use their services.