Lawmakers target Facebook’s liability exemption for user posts

Washington • Top Republican lawmakers on Tuesday attacked one of the legal protections most prized by social media companies such as Alphabet Inc’s Google Inc 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.

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 on 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 favour 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”.

Public Utilities

Republican representative Steve King of Iowa asked about “converting these large behemoth organisations 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 VP for global policy management, Monica Bickert, on its controversial decision not to ban the page of the conspiracy website 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 US Federal Trade Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission, and CEO 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 US President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that “we have to guard against the tendencies for social media to become purely a platform for spectacle and outrage and disinformation”. — Bloomberg