with Tonya Riley

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Aspen, Colo. — Facebook is caught in a political tight spot once again after releasing a report aimed at assuaging conservative criticisms that its algorithms and policies are biased against them.

The report — conducted by ex-Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and a law firm — showed no evidence of that bias, but that didn't stop Republicans and left-leaning civil rights groups alike from slamming it for being insufficient. Facebook commissioned the report last year, and Kyl and his team met with more than 130 conservatives to compile their concerns. However, critics said that the report would have been more effective if it relied more heavily on internal data provided by the company. 

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of the tech industry on Capitol Hill, blasted the report. He challenged the methodology of the third-party audit, which relied heavily on interviews with conservatives about their concerns. 

“Merely asking somebody to listen to conservatives’ concerns isn’t an ‘audit,’ it’s a smokescreen disguised as a solution,” Hawley told me in a statement. “Facebook should conduct an actual audit by giving a trusted third party access to its algorithm, its key documents, and its content moderation protocols. Then Facebook should release the results to the public.”

Meanwhile, civil rights groups on the left were also critical of the report, with the group Muslim Advocates also calling it a “smokescreen” — for very different reasons. The groups accused the company of pandering to conservatives and argued that the report could undermine efforts by Facebook to address other content problems on its platform — including hate speech and disinformation. 

“This review is a make-believe solution in search of a phantom problem,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in a statement. “Rather than allowing baseless allegations of so-called anti-conservative bias to distract them, Facebook officials should focus on the civil and human rights problems and white supremacist propaganda overrunning its platform.” 

The swift blowback highlights the fact that Facebook seems to consistently find itself in lose-lose positions in Washington as it tries to appease both political parties on a host of issues, from privacy to content moderation to disinformation and the scope of its power. Skepticism of the tech industry is increasing on both ends of the political spectrum — but the parties have very different motivations for targeting tech that can often conflict. 

Republicans are most worried about perceived anti-conservative bias, while Democrats on the Hill and running for president are primarily concerned about addressing election-related disinformation and online extremism, especially as social media’s role in recent mass shootings is increasingly in the spotlight.

Facebook is not the only tech company navigating this tension. Google and Twitter have also denied repeated allegations that they’re censoring conservatives while facing criticism from the left they’re not doing enough to stamp out problematic content. But Facebook is the only prominent company to proactively try to address these concerns and announced it would tweak an ad policy in response to its report.

As my colleague Marie Baca noted yesterday, the report highlighted the fact that Facebook has the power to limit free speech, although there isn't evidence that it has. The report also said Facebook has taken some small steps to address conservatives' concerns, including loosening its policies around shocking and sensational content to allow the appearance of some antiabortion ads showing infants receiving medical treatment. 

Facebook noted the study began well before headlines about anti-conservative bias increased in recent weeks. President Trump has been escalating his accusations against the industry, recently hosting a “Social Media Summit” at the White House where he blasted tech companies for silencing conservative voices. None of the tech companies attended the event.

It doesn't appear the report will slow down Team Trump's attacks on Big Tech. Hours after Facebook rolled it out, Donald Trump, Jr., was on Twitter criticizing Facebook's power, apparently in response to the company's new news curation feature. From Twitter:

Republican anger threatens to boil over on the Hill, though threats don't always mean tangible action. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), one of the lawmakers most concerned about anti-conservative bias, has suggested Congress may need to consider changes to a key legal shield that protects companies from lawsuits for content others post on their websites. He's also floated the possibility of antitrust action, which is something Democrats and the Trump Justice Department are also examining. Cruz did praise the report for accurately identifying many of the concerns he has about bias at Facebook. 

“It is good to see Facebook is taking those concerns seriously,” his office said in a statement. “Sen. Cruz looks forward to seeing how Facebook’s announced policies will be implemented, and for future reports and installments from Sen. Kyl.”

Here in Aspen, a top Justice Department official signaled the administration's review of competition in the tech industry is intensifying. Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim also expressed support for a review of the legal shield that protects the tech companies, known as Section 230, but noted it wasn't an antitrust issue. 

“I don’t think back when that law was passed the type of online information services that we see today was anticipated by Congress,” Delrahim said. “But we should take a look, at almost I think every law, but particularly this law, to see does it make sense?”

“I’m not a huge fan of private lawsuits … but to the extent that companies internalize externalities of their offerings and make them improve and be more responsible, that can be a positive thing,” he said. “So I think a review of Section 230 by those people who care about it is perfectly appropriate.”

To readers: The Technology 202 will publish on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week and will take a break the week of Aug. 26 before returning full time after Labor Day.


NIBBLES: The Justice Department is intensifying its review of potential antitrust violations by online platforms, Delrahim indicated at a tech policy event in Aspen, Colorado, my colleague Tony Romm reports.

The Justice Department has released few details since announcing its probe of the tech industry in July, but Delrahim said that next steps of a typical investigation could include seeking “documents and information from parties who might be affected,” including legally compelling witnesses to provide information if necessary. Delrahim has not officially named any companies targeted  by the probe, but Google, Amazon, and Facebook are all likely targets.

The federal government is also coordinating with states attorneys general, who are exploring their own investigation according to a recent Wall Street Journal report. Delrahim says that “more than a dozen or so” have expressed interest in investigating competition in the tech industry.

NIBBLES: Facebook is rolling out its long-anticipated "Clear History" tool. But while the new “Off-Facebook Activity” will offer users the ability to limit what information Facebook collects from other apps and websites, it’s a far cry from what many imagined when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced plans last year to build a data-clearing tool, my colleague Tony Romm reports.

The new tool “disconnects information from being identified to a specific user” but “isn’t deleted outright.” Furthermore, the controls don’t prevent Facebook from reporting to advertisers when users act on an ad targeted to them.

Despite its limited function, the company has pegged the tool as a way of rebuilding trust with consumers after Cambridge Analytica. “We expect this could have some impact on our business,” Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, told Tony “but we believe giving people more control over their data is more important.”

BYTES: Gun resellers are flocking to Facebook’s Marketplace, raising scrutiny over the tech giant’s ability to police its e-commerce services, Parmy Olson and Zusha Elinson report for the Wall Street Journal. Facebook’s sales feature, which reaches more than two billion users, explicitly bans the sales of guns but sellers have skirted the policy by only listing items as cases and signaling their real content by inflated prices, the Journal reports.

In one case, a seller who listed a gun case for $950 – nearly three hundred times its normal retail price – admitted to Journal reporters over Facebook Messenger that he was selling an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.The seller said within two hours he had received over 30 messages about the item. An analysis by social media research firm Storyful found dozens of similar listings across 10 major U.S. cities when searching for “gun case” earlier this month.

Facebook isn’t alone in struggling to regulate the sales of banned firearms and accessories on its platform. A Washington Post investigation earlier this month found that both Amazon and Google struggled with sales of gun parts, a violation of their respective policies. Like Amazon and Google, Facebook uses both machine learning and humans to screen its Marketplace content.


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