Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Switch

FCC chairman says social media platforms lack transparency in how they restrict conservative content

December 12, 2017 at 12:24 PM

Ajit Pai is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. (Zach Gibson/Bloomberg News)

In an interview Monday about the coming FCC vote over whether to repeal landmark net neutrality rules, agency chairman Ajit Pai took aim at a different group — the Web platforms themselves. Content providers such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, Pai said, deserve more scrutiny over their decisions to restrict political content with pro-Trump and conservative messaging.

Pai's comments on the Fox News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight” come days before a major vote in which the chairman and his fellow Republicans on the Federal Communications Commission are expected to eliminate the Obama-era rules that were designed to ensure that Internet service providers treat all Web traffic equally.

Related: [The FCC’s net neutrality plan may have even bigger ramifications in light of this obscure court case]

Host Tucker Carlson told Pai that he didn't have a firm position on net neutrality. But he used the interview to highlight what he described as a media environment dominated by giant tech companies, firms that he has recently criticized. “A lot of people, a lot of famous people, have very strong opinions about net neutrality,” Carlson said. “They warn if it's repealed a handful of tech companies will have total control of the Internet. Wait, doesn't that already describe the status quo?”

If net neutrality is dismantled, Carlson asked Pai, what, if anything, would prevent Internet providers from censoring Fox News over complains about hate speech? Pai said that the FCC requires transparency, mandating that companies such as Comcast and Verizon disclose such actions and that a different agency, the Federal Trade Commission, would oversee that kind of content restriction.

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In the latest news of the net neutrality fight, the Senate approved a resolution that will attempt to reverse the FCC's act of deregulating the Internet. (Jhaan Elker, Brian Fung/The Washington Post)

Defending his push to repeal net neutrality, Pai then shifted the focus from Internet service providers to Web platforms, which he said are already impinging on free expression online.

“You've actually put your finger on something that's very important that I've talked about: Where is the threat to the free and open Internet?” Pai asked. “One of the things that people have suggested is it's not Internet service providers, it's some of the content companies that decide what you see on the Internet and, more importantly, what you don't see. Where's the transparency there? Shouldn't we have a conversation that involves them, as well?”

Related: [FCC commissioner, New York attorney general call for delay of net neutrality vote over fake comments]

Pai noted that there have been rumblings in Congress about the lack of transparency from Web platforms when they decide to remove or restrict political posts and videos. “I, too, have raised some of these concerns,” he said.

He cited Twitter's move to block a campaign video ad by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who spoke about her effort to “stop the sale of baby body parts” in a reference to false claims about Planned Parenthood. Pai also mentioned YouTube's crackdown on some pro-Trump and right-wing Internet personalities, whose videos were recently stripped of advertising for violating the company's terms of service.

“A lot of these decisions impinge on the free expression online that we've all come to cherish. But there is no real transparency into how these decisions are being made,” Pai said.

Referring to net neutrality, Carlson said it seemed to him that significant amounts of money have been spent to lobby public opinion on the rules. He asked Pai if the big tech companies were behind it.

“I'm not sure who exactly is funding all of these things,” Pai said. “What I can say is that the hysteria has reached a pitch which is completely disproportionate to the facts. As I said, we weren't living in a broken Internet in 2015. All of these harms that these celebrities and whatnot are talking about are all hypothetical. There's no market failure here. Internet service providers are not and have not blocked content willy-nilly.”

Carlson wrapped up the segment by saying, “We know Facebook, Google and Twitter have blocked content willy-nilly, and continue to.” Pai nodded.


Hamza Shaban is a technology reporter for The Washington Post. Previously, he covered tech policy for BuzzFeed.

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