Republicans widen counterattack on Facebook and Twitter

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The GOP fury at Facebook’s and Twitter’s handling of unproven allegations against Democratic hopeful Joe Biden morphed Thursday into a broad assault on the online industry’s most-cherished legal protections — drawing even some once-skeptical Republicans to back President Donald Trump’s crusade against Silicon Valley.

The two social networks refused to back down from their decisions Wednesday to limit the spread of a disputed New York Post story about the Biden family, a decision that drew praise from some past critics of the industry’s handling of misinformation. Twitter even locked the account of Trump’s reelection campaign for a few hours Thursday for posting a video related to the article.

Trump, in turn, seized on the companies’ efforts at preelection fact-checking as the latest evidence for his charge that the big U.S. tech platforms suppress conservative messages. And more GOP leaders joined his call for Washington to reexamine, water down or revoke a 1996 law that limits people’s ability to sue online companies — a change that would threaten the tech giants’ fortunes.

“Censorship over political differences, whether done by the government or a tech company, is un-American,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Consumer Protection Subcommittee, Thursday during a POLITICO summit on artificial intelligence.

McMorris Rodgers warned a year ago that weakening the 1996 statute could chill free speech, but on Thursday she urged Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) to hold a hearing on changes to the law. “These top platforms must be held accountable for the content bias and how they’re influencing the election,” she said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy went even further Thursday by calling for repealing the statute, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives broad impunity to internet companies to moderate content on their sites. “It’s clear Section 230 in its current form is no longer working,” the California Republican said. “It is time to scrap the law and start over.”

More concretely, Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai ended months of suspense by announcing Thursday that his agency would take its own look at whether the liability protections should be narrowed, as Trump had requested in May. The same day, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee said they will vote next week on subpoenaing Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify about the Post flap.

Trump, who has already called for repealing Section 230, told Fox Business cryptically Thursday that the companies’ actions will bring consequences. “It’s going to all end up in a big lawsuit,” he said.

Rare praise for Silicon Valley: On the other hand, Twitter’s and Facebook’s handling of the Post story got support Thursday from people who have criticized the tech industry for being too slow to clamp down on false and divisive messages.

“There are a host of red flags about this deeply irresponsible story, and tech companies have the right to act cautiously if they so choose,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who wrote Section 230 when he was in the House. He added, “The First Amendment gives private companies the right to decide what’s on their sites, and the government can’t force them to host debunked stories based on dubious hacked material just because it’s in the president’s interest.”

Tech watchdog groups called the companies’ stance a welcome change, saying it’s far more effective to curtail potential misinformation before it goes viral than to claw it back afterward. Facebook in particular has faced criticism for its failure to squelch — or even fact-check — Russian-generated disinformation about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential race.

“There is nothing biased or unreasonable about Facebook or Twitter restricting virality of a news story to ensure accuracy,” said Hany Farid, a misinformation expert and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “And there is certainly nothing unreasonable about this in the weeks before a national election.”

Jessica González, the co-CEO of the progressive advocacy group Free Press, agreed.

“They often don’t get it right and frankly haven’t been robust enough in protecting folks from hate and disinformation,” she said. “But I think, in this instance, this is a move in the right direction.”

A role they never wanted: Playing referee during a deeply divisive presidential race is not the role either company sought out. And it’s not one they have necessarily handled nimbly — Dorsey confessed in a tweet late Wednesday that it was “unacceptable” for Twitter to block sharing of the Post story without providing “context as to why we’re blocking.”

The squeeze is particularly acute for Facebook, whose CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, went to great lengths to avoid judgment calls about political speech and advertisements only to find them inescapable. Saturday marks one year since Zuckerberg gave a speech at Georgetown University in which he pledged to “uphold as wide of a definition of freedom of expression as possible.”

Now, just weeks before Election Day, Silicon Valley faces relentless pressure to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Russian operatives used social media to spread lies that U.S. intelligence agencies later concluded were meant to help Trump win.

That turnaround has forced Twitter and Facebook to make politically treacherous decisions about fact-checking misleading posts from prominent political leaders, most notably Trump himself. But some advocacy groups say the companies are going too far in the other direction — and the New York Post drama is a classic example.

“Twitter and Facebook are dead wrong on this, though the First Amendment protects their right to be wrong,” said Jesse Blumenthal, who oversees tech policy for the libertarian Charles Koch Institute and its affiliate, Stand Together. “The answer to bad speech is more speech, not ineffective attempts to suppress information.”

Beyond misinformation, the companies are haunted by the Russian hacking and releasing of Democratic Party emails on the eve of the 2016 election, which drew widespread attention from news outlets and social media.

Facebook’s head of security, Nathaniel Gleicher, warned last month that foreign adversaries could pursue hack-and-leak operations in which stolen and manipulated content is released to media outlets to sow chaos. He specifically warned in a Sept. 24 tweet that operatives may “trick journalists into doing their amplification for them,” a sentiment he reupped following the New York Post story.

The blowback in Washington: But taking aim at domestic political content carries potentially dire consequences for the companies. They’ve already marshaled their lobbyists and trade associations to defend Section 230 from bipartisan criticism in Washington, only for the Post issue to ramp up the fury on the GOP side.

Trump signed an executive order in May that called on the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission to write rules that could curtail liability protections for internet companies. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas added his support for the cause on Tuesday, writing that courts have expanded the liability shield beyond what Congress intended when it passed the law in 1996.

The Section 230 scrutiny isn’t likely to evaporate if voters oust Trump from office, even if Democrats refuse to sign onto Trump’s efforts to protect pro-GOP content from filtering or fact-checking.

Biden told The New York Times in January that he also supports revoking the law, though for much different reasons — he accused Facebook of “propagating falsehoods they know to be false.” Democrats on Capitol Hill, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have also said the law deserves reconsideration, especially after Facebook refused to take down a doctored video that falsely made Pelosi appear drunk.

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