Congress will hold not one — but two — hearings scrutinizing the alleged failings of Big Tech this week. Both are dedicated to probing the industry’s flaws, but each will be sending very different messages.
On Tuesday, the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee will investigate the role that tech has played in the proliferation of white nationalism. It’s a hearing that takes place in the wake of a mass shooting in New Zealand during which the attacker targeted two mosques, and live-streamed the footage on social media platforms. Video of the attack was replicated thousands of times as sites rushed to take the copies down, marking a recent example of tech companies’ struggles to police their own sites.
“Social media platforms have served as world-wide conduits to spread vitriolic hate messages into every home and country,” the committee majority noted in a press release.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee will look into questions of how tech companies have enabled potential censorship of differing political perspectives on Wednesday, a longstanding grievance lawmakers on the right have sought to address, though tech executives have protested such claims in the past.
“Big tech behaves like the only acceptable views are those on the far left,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who will be leading the censorship hearing, previously told The Hill. “And any views to the contrary are suitable for censorship and silencing.” Conservatives have repeatedly cited concerns about how companies like Facebook and Twitter take down accounts and posts, arguing that they disproportionately curb Republican voices.
In the mountain of issues facing big tech, the stark contrast between the two hearings demonstrates how this industry has become embroiled in yet more culture wars between the right and the left. That’s not to say that holding social media platforms accountable for the spread of white nationalism and other hate speech is not important, or that policing one’s platforms can’t be tricky to enact fairly, but it’s a sign that of all the meaty and potentially bipartisan issues Congress could choose to focus on, they’re choosing the ones their respective bases are most invested in at this moment.
The larger, looming issue for the tech industry is that Democrats and Republicans are both interested in holding the industry more accountable — but what that could look like may depend greatly on which party holds power. Ultimately, making tech responsible for the content on its platforms could change the way Silicon Valley operates forever.
Tech is preparing to take hits
While tech companies have long been seen as bastions of progressivism, with a bit of a libertarian bent mixed in, the relationships they have with Democrats have increasingly soured. As fledgling startups have evolved into industry monoliths and idealistic company visions have given way to platforms that elevate misinformation, Russian election interference and hate speech, Democrats are now seeking ways to rein in much of their market dominance.
Tech companies’ inability to tackle extremist content on their platforms is just one of several areas where Democrats want to focus. Breaking up big tech companies has become a chief policy proposal from Elizabeth Warren, a prominent Democrat in the crowded 2020 field.
Similarly, while Republicans have frequently praised the economic growth fostered by Silicon Valley, they’ve also taken to attacking tech censorship of conservative viewpoints.
Since 2016, when a former curator alleged that Facebook’s Trending Topics feature had an anti-conservative bias, Republicans have latched onto worries about censorship as one of their top tech-related concerns. As a result, tech companies have actively pushed back against the idea they target conservative ideologies. (Facebook released the results of an internal investigation on Trending Topics that said it did not find evidence of explicit bias against conservatives as part of this feature, though it opted to discontinue it completely about two years later.)
Meanwhile, as New York Times’s Silicon Valley’s Nick Wingfield reported, negative treatment of Trump supporters — like venture capitalist Peter Thiel (who was criticized by fellow Facebook board member Reed Hastings) and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey (who ultimately left Facebook) —have only further fueled these suspicions.
One particular example Republicans like to hold up of alleged censorship is when now-Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) was banned from promoting her campaign video as an ad on Twitter because of a reference she made related to Planned Parenthood. In the video, Blackburn accused the organization of engaging in the “sale of baby body parts” and Twitter said it initially barred the video from being used as an advertisement because it was too “inflammatory,” though it ultimately reversed its decision.
As an op-ed in The Washington Post has noted, however, the specific Planned Parenthood claims that Blackburn was flagged for in the video aren’t simply inflammatory, a federal judge has said there’s no evidence supporting them.
“We need to recognize that the global reach of these companies creates overwhelming pressure against free speech, and we need to do a much better job counteracting that pressure,” Blackburn has said.
Republicans and Democrats actually have a similar problem
The gripes from the two different parties actually converge on the same fundamental problem: they aren’t satisfied with the way tech companies moderate content. It’s a problem that’s come up again and again.
Currently, a regulation known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, shields tech companies from liability for content that’s posted on their sites by third parties. Because of Section 230, a website like Facebook can argue that it should not be held responsible for hate speech, for example, because it’s simply the platform and not the publisher.
But this open-ended attitude toward the law could be changing. Just last year, lawmakers passed a bill aimed at stopping online sex trafficking, dubbed FOSTA-SESTA for short, which made tech companies liable for “knowingly” promoting sex trafficking on their platforms. It aimed to bar sites from helping sex traffickers, but the law also made companies responsible for some of the content on their sites, potentially opening the door to legal challenges that no company could withstand, even sizable tech giants.
Carving out more exceptions in Section 230 is one way lawmakers could increase accountability for issues like hate speech, but it could also cripple the way that such platforms — and the broader internet — operates, tech groups have argued. As their thinking goes, Section 230 has given sites the freedom to flourish without overwhelming legal liability hanging over their heads.
So far, Congress has held hearings, proposed bills, and sent stern letters to express its grievances. For big tech, this week’s show of concern could potentially be the start of something much, much bigger.