FTC Urged To Investigate Editorial Decisions At Google, Facebook And Twitter

Two Republican lawmakers who have repeatedly accused tech companies of suppressing right-wing views are now calling for a Federal Trade Commission investigation of Silicon Valley.

“Big tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter exercise enormous influence on speech,” Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Josh Hawley (Missouri) say in a letter sent Monday to the agency. “They control the ads we see, the news we read, and the information we digest. And they actively censor some content and amplify other content based on algorithms and intentional decisions that are completely nontransparent.”

The senators are asking the FTC to gather information about tech companies' content policies, in order to determine whether the companies are in "full compliance with the law." 

Cruz -- who hired defunct data consultancy Cambridge Analytica during his bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination -- and Hawley now contend that major platforms warrant investigation because they could potentially influence elections. (Cambridge Analytica ran ads on Facebook for Cruz; those ads reportedly were targeted to Facebook users based on data obtained by Cambridge Analytica from an outside developer who allegedly violated Facebook's rules.)

“By controlling the content we see, these companies are powerful enough to -- at the very least -- sway elections,” the lawmakers write. “Companies that are this big and that have the potential to threaten democracy this much should not be allowed to curate content entirely without any transparency.”

The lawmakers' request drew criticism from the watchdog New America's Open Technology Institute, which has itself advocated for greater transparency around content moderation.

“We are concerned that this letter is an attempt to gain traction for Senator Hawley’s bill to amend Section 230, which OTI is strongly against,” Sharon Bradford Franklin, director of surveillance cybersecurity policy at OTI, says in an email to MediaPost.

Hawley recently introduced a bill that would revise Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act by stripping web companies of key legal protections, unless the companies treat content “neutrally.” Specifically, his bill would require large platforms to prove they treat speech “neutrally” in order to benefit from Section 230, which immunizes web companies from liability for users' posts.

“Although we agree that platforms should provide greater transparency about how they curate content, we must ensure that efforts to hold platforms accountable do not result in threats to free expression,” Franklin added.

The senators' letter comes several days after President Trump met with right-wing activists to discuss alleged bias by tech companies. Trump and other conservative figures have accused tech platforms of suppressing right-wing views, despite an absence of empirical evidence that Silicon Valley companies disproportionately censor conservative voices.

Last September, the Justice Department said it planned to convene a meeting with state attorneys general to explore whether tech companies were suppression right-wing views. When the meeting took place, the focus was instead on privacy and competition, according to The Washington Post.

But shortly before the planned meeting, organizations including the libertarian TechFreedom urged the Justice Department to avoid attempting to interfere with tech companies' content policies. "It is unclear what lawful action could result from your planned meeting," that letter said. "Indeed, we fear that the effect of your inquiry will be to accomplish through intimidation what the First Amendment bars: interference with editorial judgment."

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