Lawmakers Target Social Media’s Liability Exemption for User Posts

(Bloomberg) -- Top Republican lawmakers on Tuesday attacked one of the legal protections most prized by social media companies such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc., questioning whether they should be held liable for content posted by users.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte asked representatives from the companies and Twitter Inc. at a committee hearing about their exemptions from liability and why they “should be treated differently than” companies such as hotels that face some legal responsibility for illegal actions on their properties.

The hearing, which comes as tech companies face increasing pressure in Washington, focused on “social media filtering practices” and followed an April hearing that examined alleged silencing of conservative voices on the platforms. Goodlatte tied the purported silencing to another criticism of the companies -- their size and question of whether they dominate markets. He asked whether conservative users would not “complain as loudly” if it were easier to go to another service.

Representatives of the companies said the liability protections allow them to remove objectionable content such as child pornography without facing the sort of rules publishers must face. They added that the variety of online services that consumers use suggests they do not have undue control over markets.

Earlier in the year, Goodlatte helped pass one of the first laws to weaken the two-decade-old protections if websites knowingly facilitate sex trafficking.

Diamond and Silk

The companies cited scheduling conflicts for missing the April hearing. It featured two conservative personalities, known as “Diamond and Silk,” who’d had their Facebook page deemed “dangerous” by the social media company. Facebook has said the determination was in error and has hired Republican former Senator Jon Kyl to advise them on potential anti-conservative bias.

While Facebook has conceded the possibility of such bias, Twitter’s senior strategist for public policy, Nick Pickles, testified Tuesday that similar accusations against his company "are unfounded and false." Pickles has cast the company’s recent moves to fight bots and abuse as an effort at "improving the health of the public conversation" by policing "bad conduct" rather than particular views.

Wikipedia Vandalism

Democratic lawmakers, for their part, suggested that the companies are not biased but have responded to conservative criticism by over-correcting in ways that favor Republicans.

The hearings come as tech giants face public backlash on issues ranging from political affiliations to privacy and Russia’s use of the social media platforms to meddle in the 2016 election.

Google, for instance, has received criticism from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who in May tweeted the “disgrace” of results that linked the California Republican Party to Nazism. Google said “vandalism” of a Wikipedia page that it used to provide answers had resulted in “erroneous information.”

“When you absorb the content, aren’t you absorbing the responsibility?” Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican viewed as close to the tech industry, asked Google’s director of public policy and government relations, Juniper Downs, during the hearing.

“We have protections in place to protect our services,” Downs responded. “Our systems didn’t catch it in time in this instance.”

Public Utilities

Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa asked about “converting these large behemoth organizations that we are talking about into public utilities” -- such as electricity -- that face stiff government regulation.

Both sides questioned Facebook, in particular, about the rules around taking pages down for violations. Democratic Representative Ted Deutch of Florida questioned the company’s vice president for global policy management, Monica Bickert, on its controversial decision not to ban the page of the conspiracy website InfoWars.com. The site has claimed multiple school shootings are hoaxes, including at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Deutch’s district.

“The question is, how many strikes does a conspiracy theorist who attacks grieving parents and student survivors of a mass shooting get?” said Deutch.

Grieving Parents

“If they posted sufficient content that violated our threshold, it would come down," Bickert responded. "The threshold varies depending on the severity of different kinds of violation."

She noted that several posts from the site were deemed a violation and removed. The company also received questions about a page that called for shooting Republican members of Congress.

Facebook has faced intense scrutiny over Russia and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a political data firm obtained the data of as many as 87 million users of the site without their permission. It faces probes by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission, and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in April, during which some Republicans also floated the possibility of regulating the company.

Criticism of the companies was not limited to the hearing. Former U.S. President Barack Obama said Tuesday at the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg that “we have to guard against the tendencies for social media to become purely a platform for spectacle and outrage and disinformation.”

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