with Aaron Schaffer

Conservative politicians and pundits upped their unsubstantiated accusations that tech companies are censoring their speech as the Biden administration pressured Facebook and other tech companies to do more to limit coronavirus vaccine misinformation. 

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) on Sunday sent a letter to the White House, claiming that the Biden administration is working with tech giants “to censor Americans’ free speech.” 

Blackburn specifically took issue with remarks made by White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who said the White House is regularly in touch with social media companies about “problematic posts” related to vaccines. Psaki clarified during yesterday’s news briefing that the White House has not asked the companies to block any individual posts, but rather has raised concerns about inaccurate information trending on their platforms.

And Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has spread vaccine misinformation, responded to President Biden’s comments by calling social media “a tool for Big Brother.”  

The senators’ comments highlight a broader GOP strategy. 

Republicans are doubling down on the their claims of anticonservative bias ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. They are just the latest sign of how conservative politicians increasingly see this as an issue that could rally their base in another heated election year. 

Yet these claims are disputed. Some new metrics reported by NPR show the conservative publication The Daily Wire actually finds a significantly larger audience on Facebook than mainstream outlets, including The Washington Post. And Facebook crafted exceptions to its policies for Trump, dating back to his 2015 candidacy, as my colleagues Elizabeth Dwoskin, Craig Timberg and Tony Romm reported

The new line of attack comes amid a broader battle between Republicans and the tech giants. 

Less than two weeks ago, former president Donald Trump sued Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, escalating his long-running battle with the companies after they suspended his accounts. Legal experts say his lawsuit is unlikely to advance.  But it has brought greater attention to conservatives' claims of censorship, and Republicans have fundraised off that messaging. 

The lawsuit echoes recent Republican attacks, arguing that Facebook and other tech companies should not be considered private companies but “a state actor.” But legal experts largely panned that argument, with John Bergmayer, legal director at Public Knowledge, calling it a “crackpot theory.” 

It also comes amid Republican efforts to pass laws targeting alleged censorship at the state level. 

Republicans have been taking their battle with the tech giants to statehouses. The Florida governor earlier this year signed a bill into law fining tech companies if they suspend political candidates' accounts. However, a federal judge recently blocked the law from taking effect on July 1. Other states, including Texas, have considered similar legislation. 

Social media issues could also come up in Democrats' midterm messaging. 

The back-and-forth between Biden and Facebook has revealed how tense the relationship has become between Democrats and top tech companies, signaling that online misinformation could become an election year issue on the left as well. 

The political backlash underscores the competing pressures confronting the tech giants as coronavirus cases rise across the country. For years, they have tried to resist the role of playing “arbiter of the truth,” especially when it comes to politics. But that’s become a more difficult position for Facebook to maintain during the pandemic.

The White House later softened its criticism of Facebook, as Biden clarified he blames bad actors for spreading misinformation on the platform. But he still said the company could do more to combat the spread of disinformation. 

Our top tabs

Watch live as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos shuttles off to space.

The Washington Post owner lifted off from his remote ranch in West Texas this morning, Christian Davenport reports. It’s a moment years in the making: Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000.

Today marks Blue Origin’s first human spaceflight. Bezos was accompanied by his brother, Mark; 82-year-old aviator Wally Funk; and an 18-year-old from the Netherlands who got a spot on the flight after a $28 million bidder bowed out because of a scheduling conflict.

Blue Origin plans two additional human spaceflights by the end of the year and “more than half a dozen next year,” according to chief executive Bob Smith.

Americans using foreign phone numbers are vulnerable to hacks by NSO Group’s Pegasus software.

The overseas phone numbers of about a dozen Americans were on a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that included documented surveillance targets of NSO Group spyware, Craig Timberg, John Hudson and Kristof Clerix report. The numbers were used by journalists, aid workers and diplomats, among others. 

The U.S. phone numbers of other Americans were also on the list, including President Biden’s lead Iran negotiator, Rob Malley. 

The report is part of an investigation by The Washington Post and 16 other media organizations into how nations including authoritarian regimes have used tools from NSO Group, an Israeli cybersurveillance firm, to broadly snoop on their citizens. 

Malley’s phone was added to the list when he led the International Crisis Group in 2019. He declined to comment. Without obtaining access to phones belonging to Malley and other Americans, it is not possible to determine whether they were hacked.

NSO, for its part, says that it is “technologically impossible” to target phone numbers with the United States’ +1 country code. The company also said that phones geographically located in the United States cannot be targeted.

But it’s less clear if Americans’ foreign phones can be hacked. NSO spokeswoman Ariella Ben Abraham did not answer a question about whether this is possible.

Top United Nations and European Union officials also condemned the reported surveillance of journalists and human rights activists, and called for private surveillance companies to be reined in.

From Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.): “If surveillance companies like NSO are working with our adversaries to spy on American government employees working overseas, they need to be held accountable. These spy-for-hire firms are a threat to U.S. national security, and the administration should consider all options to ensure that federal employees are not targeted.”

Our colleagues also have two must-read reports out this morning about Indian activists whose phone numbers were on the list, and the suspicions U.S. and European security officials have about NSO’s links to Israel.

The Justice Department announced new rules for prosecutors to seek email records of journalists.

The new policy formalizes a Biden administration decree to stop using secret orders and subpoenas to get journalists’ data in pursuit of leakers, Devlin Barrett reports. The revelations of the Trump administrations tactics put a spotlight on how law enforcement agencies use secret requests to get data from tech giants.

Microsoft, which said it receives thousands of the orders every year, has called for new limits on the gag orders.

Prosecutors will be able to seek records on reporters in some circumstances. They will be able to request the records if the journalist is the subject or target of an investigation outside their journalism or is suspected of working as an agent of a foreign power or with a foreign terrorist group. Prosecutors can also request the records if there is an imminent risk of bodily harm or death.

Rant and rave

A December 2020 video by Boston Dynamics of a robot dancing has again made the rounds on Twitter. People, predictably, were not amused. David Leavitt and the Nations Elie Mystal:

Journalist Julia Ioffe:

Our colleague, Gerrit De Vynck, and Bloomberg Businessweeks Max Chafkin:

Trending

Daybook

  • A House Intelligence Committee panel holds a hearing on microelectronics security and innovation today at 10 a.m. 
  • Patreon policy head Laurent Crenshaw discusses patent policy at an Engine seminar today at 4 p.m.
  • The Computer and Communications Industry Association hosts an event on the 10th anniversary of the America Invents Act on Thursday at 1 p.m.
  • Twitter discusses its second-quarter earnings on a call on Thursday at 6 p.m.
  • Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) speaks at a Brookings Institution event on cross-border data transfers on Friday at 12:30 p.m.

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