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Google, Facebook and Twitter executives came to Capitol Hill to testify about election security. Instead they faced a grilling about whether their platforms are biased against conservatives.
A string of Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee skipped questions about how the companies were tackling disinformation campaigns or preventing Russians from purchasing political ads on their platforms in the run-up to the 2020 election. They were more interested in whether Facebook and Twitter were “shadow-banning” -- quietly blocking or restricting -- conservatives’ accounts on their platform.
“The minute you start putting your hand on the scale of freedom and justice to tilt it one way or another, quite frankly we’ve got to act as members of Congress,” warned Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
The technology executives vehemently denied that they engage in shadow banning. There is no evidence that the platforms have been systematically biased against one political party.
The hearing highlights how Republicans have made it their default playbook to hammer the tech companies on this single issue over all others -- even when faced with pressing national security concerns about foreign influence campaigns ahead of the 2020 elections. But it also underscores how, even in a divided Washington, both sides are threatening to crack down on Big Tech -- though they have very different motivations for doing so.
During the same hearing, Democrats also expressed concerns about Silicon Valley's content moderation decisions -- with a focus on curbing the spread of disinformation over their platforms. They pressed the companies on what steps they had taken to prevent foreign actors from buying political ads on their platform and how effectively they were coordinating with one another to address security threats.
Republicans are using the groundswell of criticism on both sides to bolster the case for change. Meadows told the companies their “freelance" approach to making content decisions is “over with.”
“Even if it takes extreme measures, you have now collided with a bipartisan issue for different reasons, and we’ll make sure that we do that,” he said.
Democrats and Republicans alike have been escalating their attacks on the tech giants in recent months. As prominent Democratic presidential candidates make calls to break up Facebook, the White House has stepped up its own attacks against the social network, as well as Google-owned YouTube and Twitter. The White House last week launched a tool where people could submit stories about times they felt they experienced bias on these services.
Some of Trump's top allies in Congress sought to drill down on these allegations. They asked questions focused on an incident at Twitter last year when the company said it accidentally limited the visibility of four Republican members of Congress -- including Meadows and the panel's ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) -- in its search results. When users typed their names into Twitter, they did not auto-populate, according to reporting from Vice News.
Kevin Kane, Twitter's public policy manager, said the company made a mistake, which it quickly fixed and publicly explained. But the members pressed him on why it appeared only Republican members of Congress were impacted by the mistake.
Democrats have largely brushed off Republicans' accusations of bias against conservatives, but in a rare display of bipartisanship, Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), the chairman of the subcommittee hosting the hearing, warned the companies that he found the Republicans' accusations concerning.
"That worries me," Lynch said. "Certainly I probably didn't agree with anything those members were ... but still it is free speech. Right now we have 257 million Americans with smart phones and everyone is mobile right now, so the scale of what can happen if you make a mistake as you've conceded is enormous so that cannot happen, that cannot happen. Especially in the campaign context, that hurts our credebility as well."
BITS: Both Republicans and Democrats blasted facial recogntion at a Congressional hearing yesterday, raising concerns that the artificial intelligence software could pose a threat to Americans' privacy and civil rights, my colleague Drew Harwell reports.
Members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee slammed the largely unregulated technology as inaccurate and invasive, and several raised the prospect of passing a federal law regulating the technology that is growing in popularity with law enforcement. Some members even raised concerns about whether the technology could be used by the U.S. government as it is in China to exert social control.
Committee chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said there's a consensus among lawmakers that they should crackdown on the technology. "The question, he said, is whether the systems should face a moratorium while the technology is assessed or refined, or whether it should banned outright," Drew wrote.
Meanwhile, Amazon shareholders voted on two facial recognition proposals yesterday -- including a sales ban on the technology that The Technology 202 covered yesterday. Both of the proposals failed. However the breakdown of the votes has not yet been released, and if shareholders got at least 3 percent of the votes, they could bring forward the proposals again in the future. (Amazon chief exeutive Jeff Bezos also owns The Post.)
NIBBLES: Justice Department staffers reviewing the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint have recommended that the agency sue to block the $26 billion deal due to concerns that such a deal could limit competition, my colleague Tony Romm writes.
The recommendation came before the companies pledged this week to divest certain lines of business and to cap prices for consumers. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai signaled he would greenlight the deal following those concessions earlier this week.
While Justice Department staff has made this recommendation, it's not a final decision. DOJ’s top antitrust official, Makan Delrahim, will make the final call. A spokesman for DOJ declined to comment to Tony.
"A lawsuit to block the merger — if it is brought — would mark a rare break within the government’s own ranks," Tony writes.
BYTES: Huawei holds a measly 0.03 percent of the U.S. market for handset sales. But abroad it's a phone-making juggernaut that was on track to surpass Apple as the second-largest phone maker in the world before the Trump administration took aggressive actions against the company in recent weeks, my colleague Greg Bensinger writes.
Many American's aren't even familiar with the company in the crosshairs of the Trump administration, largely due to a decade-long rift with the U.S. Greg writes the allegations against the company sound "straight out of a James Bond film" and include espionage, trade violations and intellectual property theft.
Brittney Jones, a 27-year-old Olympia, Wash., resident is one of the small minority of Americans who prefers Huawei phones. She said she's never met another American who owns a Huawei phone, except for the man she bought her own handset from on Craigslist. She preferred the device due to its front-facing camera.
“I didn’t really care what the name was,” Jones, a student, who researched the phone online, told Greg. “It’s not fair that we don’t have access to the best technologies in the U.S. I should be able to just go to the store and buy the best phone out there.”
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