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Democrats have so far been loudest on the campaign trail and in Washington in their calls to crack down on Silicon Valley. But the mounting criticism this week from Trump and other Republicans over the companies’ alleged bias against conservatives shows that the backlash to Big Tech is surging across the political spectrum.
In one of President Trump's most explicit criticisms of the technology industry, the president at a news conference yesterday accused Twitter of "big discrimination" against Republicans -- and also accused leaders of Facebook and Google of colluding with Democrats.
"There is collusion with respect to that, because something has to be going on," he said. "When you get the back scene, back office statements made by executives of the various companies and you see the level of, in many cases hatred, they have for a certain group of people that happen to be in power — that happen to have won the election — you say, 'that's really unfair.' Something's happening with those groups of folks that are running Facebook and Google and Twitter and I do think we have to get to the bottom of it."
Charges of suppressing conservative voices seem to be shaping Republicans' approach to lashing Big Tech: Also this week, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) filed a headline-grabbing $250 million lawsuit against Twitter -- claiming the social network permitted users to attack him because of a political agenda. Though his case has been labeled "doomed to fail" by many legal experts, the case provides other Republicans openings to air their grievances.
The fracas -- combined with recent calls from prominent Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren to break up the technology companies -- highlights how Silicon Valley’s spectacular fall from grace has left the industry with few allies on either side of the aisle.
But even as consensus builds in Washington to rein in Big Tech's power, it's not clear if the political parties will ever agree on how they want to bring down the hammer on the companies.
Democrats are increasingly raising the prospect of antitrust action to address their concerns with the technology companies -- and there's growing momentum on the left to give the Federal Trade Commission more authorities to investigate potential violations. It's not just Warren's calls on the campaign trail: Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) published an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday calling on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook for violating antitrust laws.
Republicans haven't gone as far. While Trump did say last year his administration was looking at antitrust action against Facebook, Google and Amazon, his recently confirmed attorney general, William Barr, said he wants to “find out more about the [market] dynamic” that allowed Silicon Valley titans to take shape under antitrust enforcers. And when it comes to the FTC, the Trump administration has favored deregulation and may be wary of giving a regulator more power or resource to take on such issues.
The pressure from both political parties highlights how difficult it might be for Silicon Valley companies to please political leaders in both parties. Sometimes the steps the companies take to put out one fire result in new headaches.
Trump’s most recent accusations emerged soon after White House social media director Dan Scavino said on Facebook that the social network was “stopping” him from replying to comments followers left on his Facebook page. He accused the company of silencing him.
However, Facebook told my colleague Tony Romm in a statement yesterday that the incident is one intended to stop automated accounts that blocks “repetitive automated activity” from one account in a short time frame. “These limits can have the unintended consequence of temporarily preventing real people like Dan Scavino from engaging in such activity, but lift in an hour or two, which is what happened in this case,” a spokesman said, apologizing for the mishap.
Facebook has expanded such efforts to crackdown on automated activity under intense political pressure, especially from Democrats who were concerned about the role bots played in spreading misinformation during the 2016 election.
One way Republicans may try to crack down on alleged anti-conservative bias is by tinkering with a decades-old law that grants tech companies broad legal immunity for content that users post on their platform. Donald Trump Jr. wrote in an op-ed earlier this week that it's "high-time" for conservatives to heed recent suggestions from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) to add a "viewpoint neutrality" provision to companies protected by the Section 230 provision to ensure conservative voices aren't silenced online.
Some Democrats have previously raised the idea of changes to address the spread of hate speech on social media -- which has taken on new relevance in the wake of the New Zealand shooting.
But others, such as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the tech industry's toughest critics in Congress, warned against making any update for fear it would enable politicians to unfairly silence critics.
"Donald Trump, Devin Nunes and Ted Cruz are proving exactly why Section 230 is so essential – without protections, all online media would face an onslaught of bad-faith lawsuits and pressure campaigns from the powerful in an effort to silence their critics. The fact is, social media companies should be doing more to clean up their platforms, not less. Calls for government regulation of online speech and the business practices of private corporations run counter to everything conservatives claim to believe.”
BITS: European Union regulators are once again fining Google -- this time with a $1.7 billion penalty for advertising practices that violate antitrust laws, my colleague Tony Romm reports. It's Google's third antitrust penalty from the bloc since 2017.
Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s competition commissioner, announced the punishment at a news conference this morning, where she accsed Google of engaging in “illegal practices” in an effort to “cement its dominant market position” in the search and advertising markets.
"The new penalty adds to Google’s costly headaches in Europe, where Vestager now has fined the tech giant more than $9 billion in total for a series of antitrust violations," Tony write. "Her actions stand in stark contrast to the United States, where regulators — facing a flood of complaints that big tech companies have become too big and powerful — have not brought a single antitrust case against Google or any of its peers in recent years, reflecting a widening transatlantic schism over Silicon Valley and its business practices."
NIBBLES: Facebook will now withhold detailed demographic data — such as age, gender and Zip codes (which are often used to indicate race) — from advertisers using its targeted ads to market housing, credit and job opportunities, my colleagues Tracy Jan and Elizabeth Dwoskin report. The company's overhaul is part of a settlement following accusations that employers, lenders and landlords use its tools to discriminate.
Though it marks a significant shift for the company that has built an empire on micro-targeted ads, my colleagues noted yesterday's announcement will likely have little impact on the social network's bottom line. However it could make Facebook less valuable to certain advertisements, such credit card promotions or recruitment.
“It may not affect Facebook very much, but it will hurt small advertisers who require that narrow targeting to sell products,” Laura Martin, a senior Internet analyst at the investment bank Needham & Co., told my colleagues. “If companies can’t reach their micro-targeted demographic, they are going to walk away from advertising on Facebook. All ad pricing could go down if demand by advertisers fall.”
You can listen to Tracy break down the news on today's Post Reports podcast.
BYTES: The widespread sharing of the video of the New Zealand shooting across social media highlighted the role that a nameless group on the message board 8chan played in preserving and then recirculating the video around other corners of the Web, my colleague Drew Harwell reports.
“The original 17-minute live stream was announced on 8chan, an underbelly of the Web known as a haven for far-right extremism and hate speech, and posters there shared tips on how to save and share the video for 'posterity' and maximum distribution,'" Drew wrote. “The ease with which anyone could save and re-upload it online, using a vast network of underground 'mirror' sites, ensured it would be permanently stamped across the Web.”
Technology companies' content moderation tactics were outmatched by some of these tactics. Facebook for example said it blocked 1.2 million copies from being uploaded, but another 300,000 slipped past its systems and were removed later. The company hasn't said how many people watched the 300,000 videos that did make it on its website. The videos also took off on Twitter and Google.
“To evade the tech giants’ automatic blocking systems, people also began tweaking the video slightly and re-uploading it,” Harwell reports. “According to the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, a trade group formed by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, more than 800 'visually distinct videos' of the attack had been digitally fingerprinted and banned.”
-- Rep. Bennie Thompson, the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, called for a briefing from top technology companies next week on their efforts to police videos of the New Zealand shooting, according to a news release from the Mississippi Democrat's office. In a letter to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter chief Executive Jack Dorsey, YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki and Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, Thompson called the companies to prioritize the immediate removal of the terrorist content.
“Your companies must prioritize responding to these toxic and violent ideologies with resources and attention,” he wrote. “If you are unwilling to do so, Congress must consider policies to ensure that terrorist content is not distributed on your platforms — including by studying the examples being set by other countries.”