Tech CEOs disagree on censoring online misinformation

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Democratic lawmakers want Facebook, Google, and Twitter to censor more content online and are hauling their CEOs before Congress on Thursday to get results.

In an early peek at how Democrats intend to force tech to comply with their agenda under President Biden, lawmakers will square off over alleged misinformation and disinformation that Democrats want to delete from the web.

While Democrats want more government regulation of online speech, the tech CEOs disagree about what should be done. Facebook favors new laws, Google mostly opposes big changes, and Twitter wants to be left alone.

The tech companies all employ a combination of manual and automated “content moderators” to police their sites. Facebook has said it has 35,000 employees focused singularly on misinformation. In prepared testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company should not be responsible for determining what speech is harmful or unlawful.

Mr. Zuckerberg wants Congress to intervene and tie the tech companies’ legal liability protections to their ability to censor unlawful information. Facebook, which recorded more than $84 billion in revenue last year, can afford to fight litigation resulting from new rules that startup competitors cannot.

“Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in prepared testimony that was released Wednesday.

If a platform cannot spot misinformation or disinformation in an ocean of billions of posts per day, then the tech companies should be absolved from responsibility too, Mr. Zuckerberg argued.

Misinformation is false content that posters may think is true whereas disinformation is deliberately false content produced to manipulate the audience. The existence of misleading information isn’t new, but the attention to its existence online is, as the coronavirus pandemic pushed people onto the internet like never before.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai worried that new rules would change the open nature of the Internet.

“They would have unintended consequences — harming both free expression and the ability of platforms to take responsible action to protect users in the face of constantly evolving challenges,” Mr. Pichai said in prepared testimony.

The current environment is the best chance yet for liberals to change the way tech works. American Economic Liberties Project senior adviser Morgan Harper wants Democrats to tell tech companies that the era of self-regulation is over.

“These platforms are making money off of our data and spreading misinformation and making that information as addictive as possible through tactics like surveillance advertising and that is something that we can put a stop to through government action,” she said.  

Surveillance advertising is the practice of collecting data on users and selling it to marketers.

Republicans also are mad at the tech companies but do not want Democrats in charge of censoring speech. Republicans want to hold the tech titans accountable for political censorship too.

The tech CEOs testifying Thursday have each appeared multiple times before Congress for several hours in the last six months on a range of issues.

Thursday’s House hearing is squarely fixated on regulating speech online and whether the government should intervene or defer to private companies to handle it themselves.

“I think the debate isn’t aggressive moderation vs. a Wild West for free expression. It’s about what specific types of content should be restricted, and who’s in charge,” said Zach Graves, head of policy at the right-leaning Lincoln Network. “Conservatives are increasingly skeptical of ceding decisions about their ability to have a voice in the digital public square to woke San Francisco companies. This underlying anxiety is justified, but also exploited and overplayed by politicians and pundits.”

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