Tech Titans Take Fire for Censorship

NRB | April 12, 2019 | Advocacy

Major technology corporations took heavy fire this week for ongoing ideological bias evident in the operation of their platforms. While censorship-deniers still abound, support appears to be growing around ideas advanced by NRB to find a solution to this clear viewpoint discrimination problem in a way that aims to honor both free speech and free enterprise values in our nation.

Chairing a subcommittee hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee – a hearing NRB lauded as coming at “a pivotal moment in the public debate over suppression of legitimate opinions on large internet platforms” – Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) detailed the significance of this situation. He emphasized:

What makes the threat of political censorship so problematic is the lack of transparency. The invisibility. The ability for a handful of giant tech companies to decide if a particular speaker is disfavored. That he or she may speak, and their words simply fade into the ether. That nobody hears what they say. And that nobody knows that no one hears what they say. Not only does big tech have the power to silence voices – with which they disagree – but big tech likewise has the power to collate a person’s feed, so that they only receive news that comports with their own political agenda.

During that hearing, officials from Facebook and Twitter (Google failed to send a witness suitable to the committee) insisted that their platforms do not purposely target conservative speech. Rounds of questioning attempted to drill down on this matter, and one instance that perhaps did not help the tech companies’ cause was when Twitter’s representative would not say that a quote from Mother Teresa on abortion was not hate speech. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said this was “hilarious.” The senator, who has called for Twitter to conduct a third-party audit on its possible bias, pushed for answers on how the company uses algorithms and human review teams to make content moderation decisions.

Hawley declared:

This committee hearing again today shows that you’re anything but transparent, and you apparently have no interest in becoming transparent. This is a huge, huge problem, and I would hope for the sake of the customers that you serve and the values you purport to represent, that you would change your behavior and to change your commitments to providing a neutral, unbiased platform for all users in this country.

Notably, Chairman Cruz highlighted the special privileges tech companies receive from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Cruz said they made a “bargain with the American people: ‘we’ll be neutral, we’ll be fair, we won’t be biased, and in exchange for that, we’ll receive what is effectively a federal subsidy of immunity from liability.’”

Similarly, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing this week on white nationalism and hate speech, representatives of Google and Facebook fielded pointed questions on how they treat speech. At one point Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) also referenced the Section 230 shield and declared, “This is appropriate as long as these platforms are not practicing any form of censorship (except in the case of explicit incitement to violence) or political favoritism.”

McClintock added, “We are discovering, however, that they are indeed practicing censorship and political favoritism. This is their right as private corporations.  But once they begin to do so, they cease to be neutral platforms and instead become publishers responsible for their content and subject to liability for defamation.”

Earlier this year, NRB sent letters to congressional leaders that rejected heavy-handed government measures, particularly calling any rebirth of a Fairness Doctrine for the internet to be “unconscionable.” Rather, NRB has for years pushed tech companies to develop their own industry-wide free speech charter. However, since there has not yet been serious industry action to do so, NRB suggested in its letter that “it is time for Congress to explore further what may be the costs and benefits of removing or conditionally suspending Section 230’s extra layer of government-granted content moderation protection for ubiquitous platforms suspected of acting in bad faith.”

During its annual meeting at the start of Proclaim 19, the NRB International Christian Media Convention in Anaheim, California, the NRB Board of Directors approved a resolution highlighting the growing problem of viewpoint censorship by companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. While prodding the tech industry to honor First Amendment values on its own and re-affirming NRB’s commitment to governmental “light touch” toward the internet, NRB’s Board resolved, “If ubiquitous tech titans continue to engage in viewpoint censorship, NRB urges Congress to creatively evaluate remedies aimed at discouraging such censorship and providing opportunity for citizens to seek redress against such discrimination.”

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

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