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White House campaign to collect data on social media bias raises free speech, privacy alarms, experts say

President Trump boards Air Force One on Friday to travel back to Washington from New York. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

A new White House campaign to collect stories about alleged instances of political bias on social media has drawn wide-ranging objections from members of Congress, free-speech advocates and privacy hawks, some of whom question whether the Trump administration’s effort violates the constitution.

Their concerns stem from a survey the White House tweeted to followers on Wednesday. It asked people to provide their names, citizenship status, contact information and links to their accounts on Facebook or other social platforms, along with details about instances in which they felt they had been censored. While the Trump administration said it sought input from people across the political spectrum, the president regularly has charged that tech giants unfairly silence conservatives.

Lawmakers bristled at what they saw as a political stunt. Many took particular exception that the White House was targeting Facebook, Google and Twitter on the same week that the administration, citing free-speech concerns, opted against joining a widely supported international pact to combat online extremism.

“It’s clear President Trump is just using this as another cynical ploy to amass more data from his supporters and fan the flames of division. He should instead be working collaboratively to fight extremism online,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees tech and telecom issues.

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The White House declined to answer questions about its effort, including what it plans to do with the data it amasses. But spokesman Judd Deere said Friday the information will “absolutely not be shared” with Trump’s reelection campaign.

Facebook, Google and Twitter, meanwhile, long have stressed their political neutrality. “The success and growth of Internet companies depends upon a broad user base regardless of party affiliation or political perspectives," said Michael Beckerman, the president of the Internet Association, a Washington-based group that represents those tech giants.

For more than a year, Trump has claimed — sometimes citing inaccurate or misleading data —that social media giants wrongly limit his reach or unfairly target his supporters. He has claimed Google promotes negative stories about him, for example, though such assertions have been widely disputed. He also has alleged that Twitter removes some of his followers, a claim Trump raised during a private meeting with Jack Dorsey, the company’s chief executive. Twitter has long maintained that follower counts fluctuate as it takes action against spam or enforces other site policies.

Still, Trump repeatedly has threatened heightened oversight of the very online platforms that he tapped to great effect to win the White House in 2016. Last August, one of the president’s top aides suggested they are “taking a look” at regulating Google’s search results, a comment that provoked widespread outrage before Trump appeared to walk it back. In March, he pledged to “do something about” his allegations that Facebook, Google and Twitter censor conservatives, though he didn’t elaborate. And Trump promised this month to “monitor” social media after Facebook took action to remove people from its site that it deemed to be “dangerous,” including users affiliated with the conspiracy theory site Infowars.

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“The White House move is a major escalation of the right-wing effort to pressure tech companies to leave vile content online, instead of doing the right thing and policing their platforms,” said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.). He pointed to federal law that paves the way for tech companies to craft and enforce their own policies without being held liable for their decisions.

“I’ve long warned that asking the government to police free speech would have dangerous consequences,” Wyden said. “It flies in the face of the Constitution.”

Outside the Capitol, digital-rights advocates said Trump had complicated some of their work to find and study online censorship. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for example, long has called on Facebook, Google and Twitter to be more transparent about the content they allow or block. The group’s work has focused on preventing governments from adopting laws that hamstring speech and collecting stories from activists and marginalized communities who have been affected.

“This kind of sucks all the air out of the room,” said Jillian C. York, the director for international freedom of expression at the foundation.

“Companies have become so big. . . . They should, and have, a moral responsibility to take human rights into account,” she said. But York said the foundation would be especially concerned if the Trump administration sought to regulate in response. “While we think companies have a moral responsibility to step up on this, seeing them regulated is not the answer."

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Others questioned whether the Trump administration had broken federal rules in the way that it launched its survey in the first place.

In a letter to the White House, sent Thursday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center said there is no evidence that the government ever conducted and published a report on its data-collection activities, a mandatory inquiry called a Privacy Impact Assessment. Absent that, the Washington-based watchdog organization said the administration’s social media campaign may be “unlawful.”

EPIC also said the Trump administration may have violated the First Amendment by requiring visitors to its site to provide their names — while denying those who are not U.S. citizens from making submissions — pointing to two Supreme Court cases that EPIC said should allow web users to express themselves anonymously and without regard to their country of origin.

“Americans across the country share a deep commitment to the First Amendment and the protection of personal privacy," the group wrote. “The White House should protect these fundamental rights.”