WASHINGTON (CN) – House Republicans on Tuesday criticized the content filtering practices of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as unfairly targeting conservative viewpoints, with some lawmakers suggesting increased government regulation of the social media giants.
“I think you have a sense and a concern about where this is going,” Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday. “And I’m all for freedom of speech and free enterprise and competition and finding a way that we can have competition itself that does its own regulation so the government doesn’t have to. But if this gets further out of hand it appears to me that section 230 needs to be reviewed and one of the discussions that I’m hearing is what about converting the large behemoth organizations that we’re talking about into public utilities?”
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., similarly took aim at section 230 of the 1996 Communication Decency Act, which protects online services like Facebook and Twitter that publish third-party content from legal liability for their users’ posts.
Issa pointed to an incident earlier this year in which the brief summary that appeared atop Google search results for the California Republican Party listed one of the group’s ideologies as Nazism. Google said the incident was the result of a maliciously edited Wikipedia page, the online reference from which the search engine pulls the snippets that appear at the top of certain search results.
Outraged by the incident, Issa questioned whether Google and social media companies should have to face the same liabilities that newspapers and media outlets do for disseminating false information.
“Each of your technologies, why is it today that this side of the dais shouldn’t begin looking at holding you accountable for what you publish, no matter where you scrape it from, if you make it your own, if you adopt it, why shouldn’t we hold you at least to the level of care that we hold public newspapers and other media to?” Issa asked.
The social media representatives soundly rejected Issa’s suggestion, saying because they do not function in the same way as newspapers or other media outlets, holding them liable for third-party content would suppress speech.
“I think such an approach risks putting speech at risk and it risks competition,” Nick Pickles, senior strategist for public policy at Twitter, told Issa. “Our role is to have clear rules, to enforce those rules well and to be more transparent in how we’re doing that to build trust and confidence.”
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., was similarly concerned about his colleagues’ calls for increased regulation, saying the companies are private organizations that should be able to make decisions that best fit their business models.
“You all need to be able to do whatever you want to do that maximizes your profit based on your internal rules, not because the House Judiciary Committee says that you shouldn’t play Alex Jones or you shouldn’t play Diamond and Silk or whatever it is that conservatives come up with or liberals come up with,” Lieu said. “This is an issue of the First Amendment. That is what has made America great. Thank you all for being here, just keep on doing what you are doing. Your duty is to your shareholders, not to the members of this Judiciary Committee.”
Tuesday’s hearing before the House Judiciary Committee was an extension of a hearing the committee held in April examining claims from pro-Trump social media duo Diamond and Silk that Facebook censored their videos and pushed down their engagement numbers.
The committee on Tuesday for nearly three hours grilled representatives of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter about steps they are taking to ensure the content policing efforts that have gained prominence after revelations about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election are applied evenly.
Representatives for the social media companies explained they have updated their appeals processes for users who want to contest the removal their posts and have taken other steps to help cut down on hate speech or so-called “fake news.”
Monika Bickert, head of global policy management for Facebook, noted her company works with five fact checking outlets to assess posts that should come with warnings or additional information. She said only when all five groups agree that a challenged post is dubious will the company flag it as misleading.
Juniper Downs, the global head of public policy and government relations for YouTube, pushed back on allegations that her company is tamping down conservative voices by noting such efforts would go against the company’s core purpose.
“Giving preference to content of one political ideology over another would fundamentally conflict with our goal of providing services that work for everyone,” Downs said.
Democrats also called Republican claims of censorship largely unfounded, criticizing the Republican-controlled committee for focusing on the issue instead of on Russian interference in U.S. elections or the much-criticized press conference President Donald Trump held with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday.
“There has been no evidence whatsoever that I’ve seen and that the majority has been able to provide that there’s any bias whatsoever,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. said.
In related news, the Associated Press revealed Tuesday that Twitter suspended at least 58 million user accounts in the final three months of 2017. The figure highlights the company’s newly aggressive stance against malicious or suspicious accounts in the wake of Russian disinformation efforts during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the news cooperative said..
Last week, Twitter confirmed a Washington Post report that it had suspended 70 million accounts in May and June. The huge number of suspensions have raised questions as to whether the crackdown could affect Twitter’s user growth and whether the company should have warned investors earlier. The company has been struggling with user growth compared to rivals like Instagram and Facebook.
The number of suspended accounts originated with Twitter’s “firehose,” a data stream it makes available to academics, companies and others willing to pay for it.
The new figure sheds light on Twitter’s attempt to improve “information quality” on its service, its term for countering fake accounts, bots, disinformation and other malicious occurrences. Such activity was rampant on Twitter and other social-media networks during the 2016 campaign, much of it originating with the Internet Research Agency, a since-shuttered Russian “troll farm” implicated in election-disruption efforts by the U.S. special counsel and congressional investigations.
Suspensions surged over the fourth quarter. Twitter suspended roughly 15 million accounts last October. That number jumped by two-thirds to more than 25 million in December.
Twitter declined to comment on the Ap’s review of the platform’s data. But Twitter executives have said that efforts to clean up the platform are a priority, while acknowledging that its crackdown has affected and may continue to affect user numbers.