with Tonya Riley

There are signs Republicans intend to raise unproven accusations that tech companies are biased against conservatives at tomorrow’s major hearing on the size and scope of Silicon Valley's power. 

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) wrote a letter yesterday to Attorney General William Barr, seeking a Justice Department investigation into whether Mark Zuckerberg lied in his 2018 testimony when he said that Facebook doesn’t make content decisions based on political ideology. 

The fact that Gaetz is putting a fresh spotlight on those more than two-year-old comments as the tech titan is about to testify suggests that the issue could resurface at the hearing before the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee hearing, on which Gaetz sits. 

"As a member of this body, I question Mr. Zuckerberg's veracity, and challenge his willingness to cooperate with our oversight authority, diverting congressional resources during time-sensitive investigations, and materially impeding our work," Gaetz said in the letter. 

And Trump himself is adding to the drumbeat of anticonservative bias claims, suggesting in a tweet last night with no evidence that Twitter is seeking out bad reports about him to feature in its “Trending” section. The president went so far as to call the feature, which ranks frequently shared tweets on the service, “illegal.” 

The accusations highlight how hard it will be for House panel to keep the focus on antitrust at the blockbuster hearing.  

The hearing with the chiefs of Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google is the culmination of a more than year-long investigation into the power of tech titans. 

Yet Democrats and tech policy experts warned that anticonservative bias claims could distract from those issues in the rare hearing, in which lawmakers will have a limited window of time to press four of the wealthiest and most powerful industry leaders in the United States. (Amazon's chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Post.) 

Many consumer advocates and Democrats hope tomorrow's hearing can set the stage for an overhaul of outdated antitrust laws, which are difficult to apply to competition in issues in the tech industry. But if lawmakers remain focused on the divisive – and flashier – issue of content moderation, it could be challenging to reach that consensus. 

“The success of this hearing depends on having a laser-like focus on the power of these companies, how they act anticompetitively, what their impact is on democracy,” said Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy. “If the hearing goes off in too many different directions … then it just becomes very confusing.” 

Gaetz's claim, for instance, relies on limited evidence from a controversial source. Gaetz's letter cites a video suggesting Facebook content moderators are more likely to filter content supporting Trump and other Republicans created by Project Veritas, a right-wing organization that targets reporters, tech workers and others it deems to be left-leaning. The organization is known for releasing highly edited videos of its subjects that are widely criticized as being inaccurate. The footage has not been substantiated by The Post or other major news outlets.  Project Veritas CEO James O’Keefe said, "Not a single one of our videos has been proven to be deceptively edited or taken out of context.”

Facebook didn’t respond to a request for comment on the Gaetz letter, but it has repeatedly denied that its moderation decisions are biased against political ideologies.

Some Republicans on the antitrust subcommittee suggest their accusations of bias are tied to antitrust issues. 

“If a platform is dominant in the marketplace and is discriminating against a particular political point of view, [then] anti-competitive behavior coupled with bias is concerning,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), a member of the antitrust panel, recently told our colleague Tony Romm

Twitter, whose chief will not be present tomorrow, may still be a topic of conversation. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, recently tried to draw these issues into tomorrow’s antitrust hearing by sending a letter calling Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey appear. The Democrats running the hearing however did not invite Dorsey, whose company is significantly smaller than the other tech giants facing antitrust scrutiny. Twitter is valued at less than $30 billion, while some of the companies appearing including Amazon, Apple and Google are worth over $1 trillion. 

Twitter declined to comment on Trump’s latest tweet. It's also unclear what law Trump considers Twitter to be breaking. 

From Alex Howard, a director of the digital democracy project at Demand Progress, which has called to break up Facebook: 

Content moderation issues involving the president’s account are only intensifying in the pandemic. Twitter removed several tweets that Trump shared overnight that made false claims about the coronavirus pandemic, including a viral video showing a group of doctors making misleading and false claims about the pandemic, my colleague Katie Shepard reports. Facebook and YouTube also removed copies of the video. Twitter also added a note to its trending topics warning about the potential risks of hydroxychloroquine use, as Trump shared more than 14 tweets over a half-hour span that promoted the antimalarial treatment and attacked infectious disease expert Anthony S. Fauci. 

Anticonservative bias claims are fueling a broader push for regulatory crackdown. 

The tech industry’s prized legal shield, a more than two-decade-old provision known as Section 230, is in jeopardy on multiple fronts. 

The Trump administration yesterday formally asked the Federal Communications Commission to start a process to reinterpret essential aspects of the provision, which gives tech companies broad legal immunity for their decisions about content on their services. 

“Unfortunately, large online platforms appear to engage in selective censorship that is harming our national discourse,” the petition says. “The FCC should determine how Section 230 can best serve its goals of promoting internet diversity and a free flow of ideas, as well as holding dominant platforms accountable for their editorial decisions, in new market conditions and technologies that have emerged since the 1990s.”

Senate lawmakers will also hold a hearing today on the PACT Act, a bipartisan proposal that would ensure companies be more transparent about their content moderation decisions. Republicans working on the bill have suggested that it would address some of the concerns on the right because it would allow users to appeal companies’ takedown decisions. 

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) also is unveiling new legislation today that would bring changes to Section 230 by revoking the immunity for tech companies that display targeted ads based on information about consumers' browsing behavior. He’s also introduced other proposals to upend the legal shield in response to his concerns of anti-conservative bias. 

Update: After publication, Project Veritas disputed the characterization of their videos in this article and provided an on-the-record comment, which has been added.

Our top tabs

Texas is investigating Facebook for possibly violating a biometric privacy law. 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton requested information related to a lawsuit Facebook recently settled in Illinois over alleged biometric privacy law violations, Ashley Gold at Axios reports. The Illinois case argued that Facebook violated the law by using facial recognition to automatically suggest users to tag in photos. The company discontinued the tool last year.

But Facebook has been reluctant to turn information from the case over.

The attorney general pushed the company in June to explain why it wouldn't turn over the requested material, according to public records obtained by the Tech Transparency Project,  a research initiative of nonprofit Campaign for Accountability that investigates Big Tech. Paxton's office said at the time that only Texas was involved in the inquiry. Paxton's office is also leading a multistate investigation into Google and is part of a multistate antitrust investigation into Facebook led by the New York Attorney General.

Texas and Illinois are two of the three U.S. states that have biometric privacy protection laws.

California is investigating Amazon's safety practices in response to the pandemic.  

The investigations, by multiple state agencies and the California attorney general, follow a June lawsuit from a San Francisco warehouse worker alleging that the company has put its workers at “needless risk,” Diane Bartz and Paresh Dave at Reuters reports

California is the second state after New York to launch a probe into Amazon's behavior during the coronavirus pandemic.  New York State Attorney General Letitia James also launched an investigation in the company, writing in an April letter that her office had concerns that the company's response to the pandemic was inadequate and possibly in violation of labor laws. Amazon has refused to disclose the number of its workers nationally to test positive for covid-19. 

The June California lawsuit asked for an injunctive order to shut down a San Francisco Amazon warehouse, citing unsafe practices including failing to allow for proper social distancing. The judge did not grant the order.

Amazon argued to the court that it has taken extensive steps to protect workers in its San Francisco facility and that no cases had been linked to the facility. California Occupational Safety and Health Administration said its investigation was still pending.

Facebook is suing European antitrust regulators for seeking records that may include employees' private information.

The social media company alleges that the probe is seeking more information than necessary for its investigation into the company's data and marketplace practices, Foo Yun Chee at Reuters reports

“The exceptionally broad nature of the Commission’s requests means we would be required to turn over predominantly irrelevant documents that have nothing to do with the Commission’s investigations, including highly sensitive personal information such as employees’ medical information, personal financial documents, and private information about family members of employees,” Facebook associate general counsel Tim Lamb said in a statement. 

The company has already provided roughly 1.7 million pages of documents since the European Union launched the investigation in 2016. 

The social media giant is also asking for a temporary stay on data collection until the court rules.

Rant and rave

Open office plans used to signal the company of the future – now many are scrambling to put up walls, The Atlantic's Amanda Mull reports.

But the overwhelming reaction on Twitter was “good riddance."

It's possible that, actually, no one liked open offices.

I mean, where were you supposed to take calls??

Mood:

The digital race to 2020

The Biden campaign is telling staff to not download TikTok on their work or personal phones.

The order reaffirms guidance from the Democratic National Committee that campaign staff should not use the Chinese app on their phones,  a campaign official confirmed. The Republican National Committee also advised campaign staff against using the app.

Both the House and Senate last week voted to ban the app from federal employee phones. Trump has also called to ban the app over concerns it could share U.S. user data with the Chinese government. TikTok has denied that the Chinese government has ever asked it for user data, and it says it would not comply with any such requests. 

Inside the industry

Twitter workers used their privileges to spy on Beyonce and other celebrities.

Dorsey and the Twitter board were warned “multiple times” since 2015 about the dangers that worker access posed, Jordan Robertson, Kartikay Mehrota and Kurt Wagner report. The company is now under a federal investigation for the hack earlier this month targeting 150 accounts, including Biden and Bezos. 

More than 1,500 workers, including independent contractors, had access to reset accounts and respond to potential content violations. In 2017 and 2018 some contractors used their privileges to spy on celebrities and accessed Beyonce's private data, including her account's approximate location.

Trending

Mentions

Match Group named Jim Lanzone as new chief executive of Tinder, The Wall Street Journal reports. Lanzone previously served as president and chief executive of CBS Interactive.

Daybook

  • The Senate Homeland Security regulatory affairs subcommittee will hold a hearing to examine modernizing telework, focusing on a review of private sector telework policies during the COVID-19 pandemic today at 2:30 p.m.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on The PACT Act and Section 230 on today at 10 a.m.
  • The House Judiciary will hold a hearing on online platforms and market power with testimony from the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google on Wednesday at noon.
  • RightsCon will take place online on July 27-31.

Before you log off

A new Internet subculture emerges: