When an average American’s social-media posts don’t go viral, it’s often understood the problem is with the content. But when that happens to a conservative pundit, it’s a left-wing conspiracy, at least according to a growing number of Republicans in the House.
Several vocal lawmakers on the powerful House Judiciary Committee are threatening to clamp down on Silicon Valley unless companies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube can prove they’re treating conservative—even the alt-right trolls—content the same as they treat liberal, progressive, and mainstream material.
While traditional GOP orthodoxy rejects regulation out of hand, not to mention that this Congress has been the most anti-regulation in recent memory, these lawmakers are flipping that script on its head when it comes to what they see as an assault on conservative talking heads.
As a result, they are already dangling a number of sharp proposals over the necks of these social-media behemoths that are intended to make them fall in line with the GOP worldview, including one that would end, or even tweak, special protections Congress gave to websites who host outside content—a move that would open the companies up to litigation.
“One of the versions would be to require that they publish the algorithms. Another one would be to go back to that section in the code that gives them that protection [and] tweak that so that they become publicly liable and then let the lawyers fix it,” Rep. Steve King (R-IA) told The Daily Beast. “I don’t like that solution either, but it seems to be the one this Congress is more likely to accept.”
King argues these big tech firms are, like his Democratic colleagues—and unlike himself, of course—blinded by their ideologies.
“When I talk to leftists, they really just, some of them just do not have, even though they’ve got a lot of cognitive ability, they’re wired so differently that they can’t rationally put themselves in the mind-set of a conservative,” King lectured just off the House floor. “So, therefore, their reasoning ability just doesn’t have the circuits to make an objective judgement.”
Conservatives like King point to what they say was unfair censoring of Trump fanatics Diamond and Silk, when Google algorithms linked the California GOP to Nazis and the likes of Gateway Pundit. That site regularly peddles conspiracy theories as news, like when it accused Parkland, Florida, shooting survivors of being paid actors, or even Pizzagate, which lead to a family-friendly restaurant in Washington, D.C. being shot up by a deranged conservative. Even so, King wants Gateway Pundit to be treated the same by Silicon Valley algorithms as the nation’s traditional publications.
“They’re a conservative organization, and they break news. There’s a number of times they’ve had the first story out there,” King said, defending the shoddy record of the controversial alt-right publication.
At a heated hearing this week on Capitol Hill, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter sent senior executives who faced questions from Republicans who are exploring whether to overhaul the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which shields these tech giants from being sued for what users post on their platforms, which Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said his committee is reevaluating.
“The Internet of today is almost nothing like the Internet of 1996,” Goodlatte told the witnesses before asking. “Are these companies using their market power to push the envelope on filtering decisions to favor the content the companies prefer? Congress must evaluate our laws to ensure they’re achieving their intended purpose.”
For their parts, the companies have admitted making mistakes, like with the California GOP-Nazi flap or even when Facebook made the massive blunder of censoring the Declaration of Independence. But they maintain embarrassing episodes like these are nothing intentional and that they’re constantly updating their algorithms to weed out mistakes while also protecting users from the truly vile content that remains just a click away from us all.
With these massive Silicon Valley firms behaving with what critics say are monopolistic tendencies, some Republicans are floating the idea of formally converting them into regulated public utilities in order to bring more diversity of opinions to the online marketplace of ideas, which the companies maintain is unnecessary.
“We operate in a highly competitive environment, the tech industry is incredibly dynamic, we see new entrants all the time,” Juniper Downs, the global head of public policy and government relations for YouTube, told lawmakers at the hearing. “We see competitors across all of our products at Google, and we believe that the framework that governs our services is an appropriate way to continue to support innovation.”
And while most Republicans stop short of actually calling for new or even tighter regulations on Silicon Valley’s finest, they say they’re willing to check their anti-regulation instincts and act if the companies don’t make changes on their own. And they argue the 1996 law was aimed at protecting online companies from litigation if their users post libelous, pornographic, or hate-filled content but say these tech companies are now using content on the Internet to make money. They say that makes them responsible for that content and also what they’re accused of intentionally burying.
“When somebody else allows you to post, ‘Come one, come all,’ they’re a public utility. When someone says you can post, ‘Come one, come all—unless you abuse,’ you’re still a public utility,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) told The Daily Beast. “When you begin monetizing material that you go out and harvest or that you solicit, you stop being a public utility in the same sense.”
Still, Issa is open about his party’s heavy-handed strategy: They want the companies to fall in line and agree to make conservative and alt-right content rise to the top of users’ feeds without having to pass a new law or tweak an old, dusty one.
“I think we have to be very careful. The fact is that threatening legislation and asking them to find solutions can be quicker and more effective than legislation, but legislation has to be held as a [possibility],” Issa continued.
Democrats are up in arms over this latest GOP attempt to undermine the public’s faith in what have become the established sources of information that are nearly universally available.
“The Republicans have a false narrative that any of these social-media platforms are trying to suppress any conservative agenda,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) told The Daily Beast. “These are private-sector companies that are trying to get as many views and likes and clicks as they possibly can.”
Even though they’re the minority in both chambers of Congress, Democrats are vowing to not let the GOP intimidate these companies into becoming mere meme factories for the alt-right. That’s why they’re rebuffing attempts to make changes to the Communications Decency Act.
“That actually enhances the First Amendment by saying ‘We’re not going to just let random people sue these companies because of videos and posts that appear on these platforms,’” Lieu continued. “I think that’s a good law and it actually enhances the First Amendment, and it’s perfectly consistent with what we’re trying to do, which is not have government interfere with free speech over the Internet.”