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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Will this Twitter hearing be the most hostile yet?

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Happy Tuesday! Let me know what you’re looking out for in President Biden’s State of the Union address at:

Below: The Federal Trade Commission declines to challenge a ruling on Meta’s VR deal, and a review finds rampant child abuse material on Twitter. First:

Will this Twitter hearing be the most hostile yet?

Silicon Valley staffers are no strangers to contentious congressional hearings. 

Top brass for major social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google have been called up for dozens of grillings over allegations of privacy, competition and content moderation abuses. 

But the House Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday with former Twitter staffers on allegations the company “colluded” with the government to suppress speech is shaping up to be one of the most combustible and adversarial yet.  

The panel’s Republican lineup is full of bomb-throwers who have led accusations that Twitter has “censored” conservatives and that in several cases have previously run afoul of its rules. 

That includes Chair James Comer (Ky.) and Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), Lauren Boebert (Fla.), Paul Gosar (Ariz.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), several of whom were given powerful committee perches after threatening to block Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) speakership bid.

The session will be the first time a member of Congress permanently suspended by Twitter under prior management will get to question its former decision-makers under oath. Greene’s personal account was permanently suspended last January for violating the social network’s policies against coronavirus misinformation by falsely tweeting that there were “extremely high amounts of Covid vaccine deaths.” 

Her account was reinstated in November after Elon Musk bought Twitter. Other committee members like Gosar and Boebert were previously temporarily suspended from the site for violating its rules on hateful conduct and election integrity, respectively.  

It will also be the first social media hearing since the company was taken over by Musk, who has openly embraced and publicly fueled allegations that the platform unfairly censored conservatives and colluded with the government.

Musk has claimed the release of the “Twitter Files,” a trove of company documents detailing internal deliberations, has revealed “hidden state censorship in direct violation of the Constitution of the United States” and that the platform engaged in “free speech suppression” ahead of the 2020 election.

Republicans have seized on the disclosures as proof of misconduct by former Twitter management and used it as ammunition against Democratic officials. 

“I think Musk should be applauded because he’s been very transparent,” Comer told reporters Thursday. “He’s putting stuff out there.”

Asked if the full set of documents and internal messages from the “Twitter Files” was shared with the committee, Comer said he had only seen what had been publicly disclosed. 

Musk has also previously amplified criticisms of three former Twitter employees testifying this week, Vijaya Gadde, Yoel Roth and James Baker, including posts fanning conspiracy theories linking one of them to pedophilia

It creates an unprecedented dynamic where a social media chief has spurred some of the attacks his former employees are likely to face on the congressional dais. 

It will be the first time a GOP-led House committee has hauled in tech leaders since the Judiciary Committee summoned Google CEO Sundar Pichai in December 2018.

At that session, McCarthy, who was House majority leader but not on the panel, made an appearance to urge Google to “provide its services free of anti-competitive behavior, political bias and censorship.”

That hearing was marked by bitter partisan clashing, with top Democrat Jerry Nadler (N.Y.) blasting Republicans for focusing it on their “delusions” of an anti-conservative bias on social media, which he called a “right-wing conspiracy.”

Democrats are poised to push back against the Republicans’ focus, including by redirecting to whether Twitter helped fuel the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump. 

House Oversight Democrats have invited former Twitter staffer Anika Collier Navaroli to testify as the minority’s witness. Navaroli testified to the House committee investigating Jan. 6 that the company for years declined to police rule-breaking posts by Trump and his allies, as Drew Harwell first reported.

The committee’s Democratic roster includes a number of heavyweight combatants on the left, including Reps. Jamie Raskin (Md.). Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Katie Porter (Calif.) and Cori Bush (Mo.).

Ocasio-Cortez, the No. 2 Democrat on House Oversight, has assailed social media platforms like Facebook as a “public health risk” because they can lead to “increased isolation, depression, anxiety, addiction, escapism.” When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before the House in 2019, she pressed him on the platform’s policy of not fact-checking political ads.

Gosar’s 2021 suspension from Twitter was over a tweet containing an altered, animated video that depicted him killing Ocasio-Cortez and swinging two swords at President Biden.

Our top tabs

FTC declines to appeal ruling greenlighting Meta’s VR deal

The Federal Trade Commission will not appeal a federal court ruling rejecting its bid to block Meta’s acquisition of a virtual reality company, Reuters’s Diane Bartz reports

Judge Edward Davila of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California last week declined to block the Facebook parent company’s deal to buy Within Unlimited, dealing a blow to the agency’s antitrust enforcement efforts under Chair Lina Khan

According to the report, “An FTC official said that no decision had yet been made as to whether the agency would try to stop the deal in a process before an FTC administrative law judge. The hearing for that is set for Feb. 13.”

Child abuse material still prevalent on Twitter, despite Musk’s pledges

Child abuse material remains widespread on Twitter, despite pledges by new owner Elon Musk to crack down on its spread, the New York Times’s Michael H. Keller and Kate Conger report.

A review by the Times found more than “120,000 views of a video showing a boy being sexually assaulted,” a “recommendation engine suggesting that a user follow content related to exploited children” and users “continually posting abusive material.”

In November, Musk tweeted that “removing child exploitation is priority #1,” and his head of safety, Ella Irwin, has said they are moving rapidly to crack down on the material.  The review found that the imagery “persisted on the platform, including widely circulated material that the authorities consider the easiest to detect and eliminate.”

House leaders strike deal on subpoenas with former Twitter staffers

“House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer has subpoenaed three former Twitter employees who will testify before the panel in relation to their investigation into Twitter’s decision to temporarily suppress a New York Post story regarding Hunter Biden’s laptop,” CNN’s Alayna Treene and Pamela Brown report.

The witnesses “requested they be subpoenaed in order to compel their testimony … given the legal complications of publicly sharing privileged information from Twitter before the committee,” according to the report. 

Comer, who met privately with Musk last month when the billionaire visited Washington, told reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday that the hearing may “incorporate some private conversations with some high-level people at Twitter” who believe the company’s actions amounted to government censorship.

Agency scanner

LGBTQ groups condemn identity-based attacks on Gigi Sohn, urge confirmation (The Hill)

Hill happenings

U.S. senators question Meta over Chinese, Russian access to Facebook data -statement (Reuters)

Inside the industry

Google fires back at rivals with plans for chatbots in search (Gerrit De Vynck)

Dell to Lay Off More Than 6,500 Workers or 5% of Workforce (Wall Street Journal)

EU lawmakers aim for common position on draft AI rules by early March  (Reuters)

Privacy monitor

48 arrested in Europe over encrypted app used in drug trade (Associated Press)


Finding love, sex and harassment on dating apps (Heather Kelly)

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