Tech Giants Called Out on Power Over Speech

Earlier this week, Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, President & CEO of NRB, expressed support for the FCC’s recently announced plan to roll back the agency’s 2015 internet power grab. In his comments, Johnson highlighted NRB’s longstanding warning that Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other such platforms can and do engage in viewpoint discrimination. Of the FCC draft order, he said, “I am encouraged that it seems to recognize the irony we have noted that certain industry players who profess concern about censorship are themselves egregious censors, especially of conservative and Christian viewpoints." Significantly, Johnson was not alone, as other powerful voices from both sides of the aisle also expressed unease this week with the power of tech giants to squeeze speech.

For example, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai did not mince words about many of the Silicon Valley titans organizing against his effort to restore internet freedom. Specifically regarding Twitter, which Pai often uses and appreciates, he told an audience at the R Street Institute, “When it comes to an open Internet, Twitter is part of the problem. The company has a viewpoint and uses that viewpoint to discriminate.” After ticking off a list of Twitter’s recent offenses against conservatives and disfavored views, he added that Twitter was not alone. Other platforms – edge providers – that determine what their users see “routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like. “

Voices from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill also expressed concerns with the power of such companies over America’s national conversations. In a House Energy & Commerce subcommittee hearing on platform algorithms, Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said these corporations “often serve as the new town squares for our public discourse” and their response to demands by governments and others for viewpoint suppression “have perhaps been a disappointment from the perspective of free speech.” Blackburn, who was herself on the receiving end of censorship in recent weeks, commented, “These multinational corporations now respond to pressures that do not necessarily line up with American values, so we need to examine how and why content is being blocked, filtered, or prioritized.”

The top Democrat on the full committee, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), stated:

Our national dialogue is being curated by companies policing content, and the number of websites handling this traffic has consolidated to just a few key players…. Structural flaws built into the algorithms used to sort online content may result in racial and other bias in our news feeds. As diverse voices are squeezed out, bias increases even further.

Pallone called this “unacceptable.”

At the very end of the algorithms hearing, Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) submitted a copy of a Twitter exchange in which Matthew Prince, CEO of cybersecurity company Cloudflare, said he was exploring options to severely slow Pai’s home internet as a punishment for the FCC head’s work to reverse the heavy-handed Title II order.  Costello said, “Isn’t it clear there’s a great deal of power” among such edge providers?

Notably, NRB is hosting a related discussion on “Internet Freedom: Rights and Responsibilities” at the National Press Club next week. In addition, the FCC plans to vote on its “Restoring Internet Freedom” order on December 14.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: December 1, 2017

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