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.”