Web Companies Have Right To 'Stifle' Conservatives, Groups Tell DOJ

The Justice Department's plan to convene a meeting of state attorneys general in order to explore whether Google, Facebook and other web companies "stifle" viewpoints is raising concerns among some free speech advocates.

"It is unclear what lawful action could result from your planned meeting," the libertarian group TechFreedom writes in a letter sent to the Justice Department Friday. "Indeed, we fear that the effect of your inquiry will be to accomplish through intimidation what the First Amendment bars: interference with editorial judgment."

The letter was signed by other organizations including start-up advocacy group Engine Advocacy and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has ties to the Koch brothers.

The groups' letter comes in response to news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to convene a meeting to discuss what the Justice Department calls "a growing concern" that social media companies "may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms."

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This year, tech companies have increasingly come under attack by conservatives, who claim their views are being suppressed online. Congress has held more than one recent hearing at which conservatives criticized tech companies for allegedly failing to promote right-wing opinions. Late last month, President Trump added his voice to the criticism, claiming Google's search engine is "rigged" because it highlights stories from "Fake CNN."

TechFreedom and the other groups write that there is no research to support the claim that news recommendation engines display a political bias. The groups add that even if tech companies were politically biased, they have a free speech right to suppress or promote whatever viewpoint they wish.

"The First Amendment protects the exercise of editorial discretion, however 'biased,'" the letter states.

The groups add that it would be unconstitutional to apply anything resembling the "Fairness Doctrine" -- which required radio and television broadcasters to present more than one side of an issue -- to the internet. That doctrine, which was repealed in 1987, was only applied to broadcasters because they received airwave licenses.

"Ironically, it was conservatives who led the fight to repeal the Fairness Doctrine over four decades -- because it hurt conservatives most," the letter states. "The threat of losing an FCC license discouraged broadcasters from including non-mainstream voices in their coverage and made impossible alternative media offerings with an unabashed conservative 'bias.'"

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