Trump Brings Limited Firepower to Fight Over Google News
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s call for action against Google and other internet companies over the way they display news is likely to run up against a hard fact: there may be little he or Congress can do.
The government has few means to dictate to publishers and online curators what news to present though executives from the companies are sure to be questioned on that when they appear before Congress next week to discuss their efforts to prevent Russian election meddling.
“From a standpoint of regulating content, there’s immediately a gigantic First Amendment problem for any effort,” said Larry Downes, project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy.
Trump claimed on Tuesday without providing evidence that Google’s news search function favored liberal over conservative outlets, tweeting that “This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!” Later, in a meeting in the Oval Office, he told reporters that Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. “are treading on very, very troubled territory.”
Trump returned to the theme Wednesday, asserting to reporters at the White House that the three technology companies “are really trying to silence a very large part of this country.”
“It’s not right, it’s not fair, it may not be legal,” Trump added. Asked if he wanted to impose new regulations on technology companies, he responded, “We’re just going to see. You know what we want? Not regulation, we want fairness.”
He also tweeted a video, with the hashtag "#StopTheBias," which purported to show that Google promoted President Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address on its homepage but did not give a boost to Trump’s. Google said in a statement that it promoted Trump’s 2018 address, but did not post a tout to either his or Obama’s speeches to Congress after they were first elected, which are not technically State of the Union addresses.
Experts say it’s unclear what he or Congress could do to influence how internet companies distribute online news. The industry has an exemption from liability for the content users write. Some top members of Congress have suggested limiting that protection as a response to allegations of bias and other misdeeds, although there have been few moves to do so since Congress curbed the shield for some cases of sex trafficking earlier in the year.
Trump has talked about expanding libel laws and mused about reinstating long-ended rules requiring broadcasters to offer equal time for opposing views, which didn’t apply to the internet. Neither has resulted in a serious policy push.
Downes said that it’s possible the Federal Trade Commission could use its authority over deceptive practices to examine the company’s statements that it doesn’t skew its results based on politics. Such an inquiry, though, would require a “charitable” evaluation of the government’s powers, he said, noting Trump is not supposed to interfere in the independent agency.
Google may hear more about the issue alongside executives from Facebook and Twitter at a hearing on Russian election meddling on Sept. 5. The company intended to send Senior Vice President for Global Affairs Kent Walker to testify, but the panel’s chairman, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, who wanted Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai, has rejected Walker.
The accusation of bias, dismissed by online search experts, follows the president’s Aug. 24 statement that social media “giants” are “silencing millions of people.” Such allegations -- along with assertions that the news media and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation are arrayed against him -- have been a chief Trump talking point meant to appeal to his base.
Trump’s re-election campaign texted the president’s tweets to supporters, writing as part of an end-of-month fundraising push that “The FAKE NEWS machine is completely out of control.”
Google issued a statement saying its searches are designed to give users relevant answers. “Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology,” the statement said. Twitter has said that any allegations of anti-conservative bias are unfounded.
Facebook declined to comment on Trump’s statements but pointed to actions it has taken in recent years to guard against bias in its feeds, including hiring a retired Republican senator to perform an internal review.
Tech companies’ reaction to claims of political bias shows that the accusations like Trump’s “have a significant impact on their business,” said Chris Calabrese, vice president for policy at the Washington-based Center for Democracy & Technology thinktank.
There’s little evidence, however, backing up the president’s complaint, Calabrese said, meaning it would be difficult to tackle through legal or regulatory changes.
“It would be really hard to see how that happens without some kind of evidence-based understanding of what’s actually happening," he said. "It’s just hard to know what’s really being contemplated here.”
Trump’s threats drew a strong rebuke from free-speech advocates.
“There are lots of things that get published that political candidates, businessmen and people on the street don’t like,” said Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland. “But you don’t get to ban speech because you don’t like what was said or published.”
Freedom Partners, a conservative group affiliated with billionaire Charles Koch that has taken issue with some of Trump’s policies, called any attempt to regulate search engines “a dangerous precedent.”
“Regulating the results of Google or other tech companies is a reckless idea that would undermine essential elements of free speech,” Jim Fellinger, a spokesman, said in a statement.
Google’s rankings have long angered media companies, not for political bias but for the revenue that the search company gets from news publishers’ work and concerns about the promotion of controversial outlets at the expense of those doing careful reporting and breaking original stories. Rupert Murdoch, who controls, among other news organizations, the Wall Street Journal, has called on Facebook to pay publishers fees to carry the news that its users post and share online.
Google News rankings have sometimes highlighted unconfirmed and erroneous reports in the early minutes of tragedies when there’s little information to fill its search results. After the Oct. 1, 2017, Las Vegas shooting, for instance, several accounts seemed to coordinate an effort to smear a man misidentified as the killer with false claims about his political ties.
Google has since tightened requirements for inclusion in news rankings, blocking outlets that “conceal their country of origin” and relying more on authoritative sources, although the moves have led to charges of censorship from less established outlets. Google currently says it ranks news based on “freshness” and “diversity” of the stories. Trump-favored outlets such as Fox News routinely appear in results.
Twitter has addressed concerns over “shadow banning,” or deliberately making someone’s content undiscovered to everyone except the person who posted it, writing in a blog post last month that Twitter does not use those tactics.
“Our purpose is to serve the conversation, not to make value judgment on personal beliefs,” Nick Pickles, Twitter’s global lead for public policy strategy, said in last month’s congressional hearing.
Earlier this month, Twitter limited the functionality of a far-right commentator Alex Jones after he tweeted a link to a video that violated company policies against abusive behavior.
Facebook and Google’s YouTube pulled the conspiracy theorist off their platforms after concluding that his content violates hate speech and harassment policies. Jones has claimed that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 was staged by the government, and that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the U.S. was an “inside job.”
Google said it issues hundreds of improvements every year to its algorithms. “We continually work to improve Google Search and we never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment,” the company said in its statement.
Ever since Facebook faced its first allegations of anti-conservative bias in 2016, because of employees who decided what stories were considered “trending,” the company has tried to remove itself from making direct decisions about content. Outside academic reviews of Facebook have found no evidence of anti-conservative bias. But the company has enlisted former Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona to investigate the issue internally.
But Google’s news search software doesn’t work the way the president says it does, according to Mark Irvine, senior data scientist at WordStream, a company that helps firms get online content to show up higher in search results. The Google News system gives weight to how many times a story has been linked to, as well as to how prominently the terms people are searching for show up in the stories, Irvine said.
“The Google search algorithm is a fairly agnostic and apathetic algorithm towards what people’s political feelings are,” he said.
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