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Sen. Ted Cruz's proposals to crack down Big Tech are the stuff of Silicon Valley nightmares.
Accusing Twitter and Facebook of suppressing conservative voices, the Texas Republican yesterday floated an overhaul to a key law that protects Internet platforms from legal liability for content posts on their sites, breaking up the companies, or even charging them with fraud.
These are the kinds of proposals that could keep Silicon Valley companies up at night — as they would fundamentally alter how the companies operate today.
The companies, which testified in a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing, deny their systems are biased against conservatives — and there is no evidence that proves they systematically favor one political ideology over another. And Internet lobbyists and digital rights advocates already pushing back hard: They say the ideas Cruz, who chairs the subcommittee, is putting on the table betray a misunderstanding of how Internet law works and say that could have dangerous implications for the economy. They also warn that such steps amount to government overreach and could endanger free speech online.
Let's break down Cruz's three-part playbook — and the backlash from techies.
1. Overhaul Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — a law that grants online platforms legal immunity for content posted on their sites.
“That provides a special immunity from liability that Big Tech enjoys that nobody else gets,” Cruz said. “Big Tech made effectively a bargain with Congress and a bargain with Congress and a bargain with the American people,” he added, which he termed as: “We'll be neutral, we'll be fair, and in exchange for that we'll receive what is effectively a federal subsidy for immunity from liability.”
The technology industry has fiercely defended Section 230 against any changes — and they even say that law is what allows them to moderate harmful content. That's critical, they say, as they come under greater pressure to police hate speech and violence on their platforms following incidents such as the New Zealand shootings.
“CDA 230 is the law that allows companies to do moderation,” Internet Association President and chief executive Michael Beckerman told me in a statement following the hearing. “Tweaking 230 would only make it harder — not easier — for online platforms to moderate legal content that no reasonable person wants online — like hate speech.”
Digital rights advocates also pushed back on Cruz's characterization of what Section 230 does. India McKinney, a legislative analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me the provision doesn't just protect tech giants. It applies to any person or company online that hosts third-party content — like blogs or a newspaper's comment section.
“Given the lack of evidence of intentional partisan bias, it seems likely that this hearing is intended to serve a different purpose: to build a case for making existing platform liability exemptions dependent on 'politically neutral' content moderation practices,” McKinney wrote in a blog post yesterday.
But Cruz isn't alone. Republicans are increasingly saying it's time to take a closer look at the legal shield. "I think this is a discussion we ought to have," Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said in an interview with my colleague Tony Romm following the hearing. "The American public now says they get the bulk of their news off of their online services. So with that in mind maybe we should have a deep dive into this."
2. Take antitrust action against the tech giants.
“By almost any measure, the giant tech companies today are larger and more powerful than Standard Oil when it was broken up,” Cruz said. “They're larger and more powerful than AT&T was when it was broken up. If we have tech companies using the powers of monopoly to censor political speech, I think that raises real antitrust issues.”
This isn't the first time Republicans have floated the idea of breaking up Big Tech. President Trump has said his administration is looking at Amazon, Facebook and Google for potential antitrust violations. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also owns The Post.) And antitrust action is also an idea that has support on the left, with progressive 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren laying out her own proposal to this effect.
However, some pro-business conservatives disagree with this plan. Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing political advocacy group, has been running a campaign warning lawmakers not to politicize antitrust issues. “Antitrust enforcement should be made based on what’s good for consumers and not based on a senator’s preferred content moderation policies,” said Jesse Blumenthal, who leads technology and innovation across the Koch network.
3. Charge the companies with fraud.
“Most users on Facebook, Twitter, Google, when they use those services they don't envision that they're participating in a bias forum,” Cruz said. “They believe when they chose to speak, people who follow them will hear what they say. There are distressing pieces of evidence that suggest that's not the case.”
Observers were scratching their heads at the proposal to charge them with fraud over this. In the hearing, neither Facebook nor Twitter's representatives would give a yes or no answer about whether they were neutral platforms when repeatedly pressed by Cruz.
Blumenthal says the tech companies aren't neutral — and that's okay because as private companies, they can do what they want under the First Amendment. “They’re not [neutral], and they should own that,” he said.
These proposals will likely stay in the spotlight as Cruz promises to host a hearing with just Google on anti-conservative bias in the coming weeks. Google was expected to testify yesterday, but Cruz rejected the witness the company offered, saying he was not senior enough.
While Democrats have their own grievances with the technology industry, they slammed the GOP hearing as a farce. Sen. Mazie Hirono said the Senate should instead be focused on how Russians used disinformation to influence the 2016 presidential election, how misinformation is proliferating about vaccines on YouTube or the spread of the New Zealand mosque shootings across the platforms.
“There are many areas where the Senate should be conducting oversight of the tech industry,” the Hawaii Democrat said. “Baseless allegations of anti-conservative bias is not one of them.”
Republicans are largely defending their decision to host the hearing. “I think a hearing like today is helpful because it does send the message that we are watching, and everyone is fully aware... that conservative groups and individuals seem to be shadow banned and censored,” Blackburn told Tony.
With all the various spats, this week provided a timely look at the state of tech policy, as Tony put it:
in the U.S. this week we had:— Tony Romm (@TonyRomm) April 10, 2019
- a white nationalism hearing where one witness claimed it was a 2020 ploy, and no signal either way what lawmakers will do about online hate
- a bias hearing without evidence
- a net neutrality vote with no future
this is tech policy in the U.S.
BITS: The Democrat-led House of Representatives passed a bill yesterday that would restore Obama-era net neutrality rules, my colleagues Tony Romm and Brian Fung report. But the bill is likely dead on arrival because it faces opposition in both the Senate and the White House, where the president's aides recommended he veto the legislation if it ever reaches his desk.
The bill, which passed on clear party lines by a vote of 232-190, would require Internet service providers like AT&T and Verizon to treat all web traffic equally. The maneuver highlights Democrats' efforts to combat the Trump administration's deregulation policy following the Federal Communications Commission's 2017 decision to appeal the Obama-era rules.
“With net neutrality, some Democrats sounded an optimistic note that the House’s vote — coupled with sustained public pressure from net neutrality supporters — could shift their fortunes,” Tony and Brian wrote. “During the FCC’s repeal effort, millions of Americans wrote the agency in staunch support of the government’s rules, spurred on by Web activists and the likes of HBO’s John Oliver.”
Despite GOP-led opposition, Democrats think anything could happen heading into the 2020 election. “I think the president, as he heads into 2020, when he sees a groundswell, a juggernaut coming at him, I think he’s going to change,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said ahead of the House vote.
NIBBLES: Facebook is launching new updates to combat misinformation and harmful content across its empire — including on its Messenger and Instagram services, my colleague Elizabeth Dwoskin reports. The changes underscore how the social network is increasingly fighting the very algorithms it built to maximize engagement.
The new features and incremental product updates illustrate that Facebook is increasingly patrolling “borderline” content on its platform — while still not outright removing it. "For example, the company will update its scrolling news feed algorithm by reviewing little-known websites whose articles get sudden surges of traffic on Facebook — a pattern that Facebook says internal tests showed were a red flag for misinformation and clickbait," Elizabeth wrote. "The new metric does not mean the problematic articles will be taken down, but their traffic will be reduced in news feed, the primary screen Facebook users seen when they open the app."
But it remains to be seen whether these changes will prove to be fundamental fixes for the embattled tech giant. "The newsfeed algorithm alone takes in hundreds of thousands of behavioral signals when it evaluates which posts get promotion — and it’s tough to assess the impact any single fix might have on such a complex system,” Elizabeth writes. The company also will expand fact-checking for images and privacy features for Messenger.
BYTES: Trump called on U.S. companies to "step up" and compete to provide the next generation of high-speed wireless networks known as 5G, Brian reports. But as the U.S. urges allies to pass on networking gear from Huawei, there's a glaring gap: Barely any U.S. companies make 5G's most critical components.
"The absence of a major U.S. alternative to foreign suppliers of 5G networking equipment underscores the growing dominance of Huawei, which has evolved into the world’s biggest supplier of telecom equipment, sparking fears within the Trump administration that a 5G network powered by Huawei’s wireless parts could endanger national security," Brian writes. "And it throws into sharp relief the years-long retreat by U.S. firms from that market."
As Sprint and Verizon race to launch 5G, they're relying on foreign suppliers. Sweden’s Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia and China’s Huawei and ZTE, account for two-thirds of the global market for telecom equipment, according to analyst estimates.
“There is no U.S.-based wireless access equipment provider today that builds those solutions,” Sandra Rivera, a senior vice president at Intel who helps guide the chipmaker’s 5G strategy, told Brian.
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