WASHINGTON, December 10, 2018 — When Google CEO Sundar Pichai raises his right hand before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday morning, it’s possible the ensuing hearing will be a sober and judicious look into his company’s data collection practices.
But Pichai is far more likely to become the latest punching bag for House members – of both parties – eager to perpetuate the unproven claims that technology companies are acting to systematically censor conservatives.
Both House and Senate committees have convened hearings on social media companies’ practices over the past year. The hearings haven’t resulted in any bombshell revelations or explosive testimony. But Republicans’ accusations of censorship – or at least tilting the scales in search engine results – have been a constant drumbeat from members of Congress and witnesses.
One Silicon Valley representative dubbed the claims ‘obviously false’
One veteran member of House Judiciary, Rep Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., called conservatives claims of censorship “obviously false.”
“I can’t speak for my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, but this appears to me to be part of an effort to rile up their base, that is anti-intellectual, anti-technology, and anti ‘elite,’ by saying that those fancy-pants in Silicon Valley are trying to keep them from hearing our message,” said Lofgren.
“For a group that is in charge of the entire government, they do a lot of whining as victims,” she said.
Her colleague, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., told BeltwayBreakfast that he is hopeful that Tuesday’s hearing will result in an “honest and thorough discussion about the role of these large social media companies.”
“A lot of the [previous] hearings have turned into a free-for-all where everybody complains about perceived or real transgressions by social media companies against different political persuasions, and the Republicans have specialized in that,” Raskin said.
“We need to have an honest and thorough discussion about the role of these large social media companies,” he said. “That basic dilemma that runs through all those conflicts and we have not resolved ourselves as a society on that basic question.”
Is the enforcement of internet companies terms of service ‘censorship’?
Raskin said that some conservatives are confusing technology companies’ enforcement of their terms of service with censorship because of an overlap between what some consider conservative values and what many people consider hate speech.
President Trump’s defense of the white nationalists who participated in the August 2017 Unite the Right rally is responsible for blurring the lines between conservatives and the white nationalists who count themselves as part of Trump’s base, Raskin said.
“If you have the equivalent of a Charlottesville march online, and Facebook or Twitter doesn’t want to host it, you have to find somewhere else to conduct your internet hate rally,” he added.
But based on the experience of one previous hearing, Raskin hopes that there is room for agreement on both sides of the aisle to have a serious conversation and not get hijacked by partisan bickering.
Previous hearings have not squarely addressed the ‘conceptual’ debate on this topic
At a previous hearing, members on both sides of the aisle agreed that lawmakers lack the “proper conceptual categories” needed to seriously address the problem of whether big tech companies are “special private actors who deserve different treatment because of their importance to the economy”
“That is the important and interesting conceptual question that we need to put on the table, and we dance around it when we just dive into particular controversies regarding this or that episode.”
The dual issues of how regulators should treat technology companies, and how technology companies treat conservatives caught the attention of President Donald Trump in late August, when he threatened three of the largest technology and social media companies in the United States for allegedly working to censor conservatives, despite offering no verifiable evidence that any such censorship is taking place.
“I think Google is really taking advantage of a lot of people, and I think that’s a very serious thing and a very serious charge. I think what Google and others are doing, if you look at what’s going on at Twitter, what’s going on on Facebook, they better be careful because you can’t do that to people, you can’t do it,” Trump said during an August 28 Oval Office meeting with FIFA President Gianni Infantino.
“I think that Google and Twitter and Facebook are really treading on very very troubled territory and they have to be careful, it’s not fair to large portions of the population,” said Trump.
Trump’s remarks came on the same day that National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told reporters that the administration was “looking into” Google’s operations.
Though BroadbandBreakfast inquired as to the result of whatever investigation may have been conducted — and whether Trump still thinks Google is “taking advantage of a lot of people” — a White House spokesperson had not yet responded by our deadline.
‘No Good Explanation’ For McConnell ‘Thumb Twiddling’ On Election Security Bills, Schumer Says
WASHINGTON, June 19, 2019 — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday said he doesn’t know why Mitch McConnell won’t allow the Senate to vote on a host of election security measures, but he hopes it’s not because the Senate Majority Leader wants President Donald Trump and his party to benefit from foreign interference.
“It’s hard to come up with any good reason why one should block this,” said Schumer, D-N.Y., who noted that McConnell’s stonewalling extends to bipartisan measures offered by Senators Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and James Lankford, R-Okla.
“I have no good explanation, and I hope it’s not because he thinks that Russian interference will benefit President Trump or his party,” he said, adding that the tools Russian President Vladimir Putin used for the pro-interference campaign he mounted in 2016 could easily be turned around and used to obtain a result that McConnell would not like.
Efforts to craft a comprehensive election security bill that would shore up American elections against foreign meddling and deter adversaries from attempting to interfere have been a priority for Democrats and some Republicans since early 2017, after intelligence officials revealed that Russia had put its thumb on the scales during the 2016 presidential election.
President Trump and many of his allies have often tried to downplay the significance of the Intelligence Community’s findings as a “hoax” perpetrated on the American people as part of a “deep state coup” by unelected bureaucrats.
During a joint press conference with Putin at their Helsinki summit last year, Trump said he believed the Russian strongman’s denials over the assessments of his own intelligence chiefs.
But a two-year investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller largely confirmed what intelligence officials had already revealed to the public.
In his report to Attorney General William Barr, Mueller found that Russia “interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” using networks of “troll farms” and social media bots to hijack the public discourse, and by weaponizing information stolen from the Democratic National Committee and members of 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Mueller and his team found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy or any sort of direct coordination between President Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Russian government. But the evidence they unearthed showed that the Russian government “perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome,” and that senior members of the President’s 2016 campaign were aware of Russia’s efforts and had expected to benefit from them.
While the 2018 midterm elections appear to have gone off without incident, Schumer said it is “irresponsible” for McConnell to suggest that the mission of securing future elections is complete, citing FBI Director Christopher Wray’s warning that America’s adversaries “are going to keep adapting and upping their game” for the “big show” in 2020.
“Director Wray says things are going to get a lot worse in 2020 and [McConnell] just stands there and twiddle[s] [his] thumbs,” he said, calling the majority leader’s stance “totally inconsistent with the warnings from the Special Counsel and the FBI Director.”
“Intelligence Committee community leaders have repeatedly warned that foreign powers will interfere with elections again, and it’s not just Russia — China, North Korea, Iran, all could do it.”
Schumer added that Democrats will continue to press for votes on many of the election security bills that have been bottled up by McConnell, as well as the bipartisan sanctions bills like the DETER Act, sponsored by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
“Leader McConnell has plenty of good options to choose from. There’s no reason why the Senate can’t take up and debate any of these bills,” Schumer said.
When asked to explain the GOP leader’s refusal to allow votes on bills related to election security, Majority Whip John Thune said Republicans would be willing to take up any measures judged “constructive and helpful” that were “more than partisan exercises.”
“We shouldn’t tolerate any foreign interference in American elections. But I do know that a lot of discussion around this issue is, I think, designed to attack the President,” he said.
As Dems Probe Whether Census Is Being Rigged Against Minorities, Trump Claims Executive Privilege Over Commerce Department Docs
WASHINGTON, June 12, 2019 — President Trump will invoke executive privilege to keep the House Oversight Committee from viewing documents that could shed light on whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census was motivated by racial or political animus, a Commerce Department official said Wednesday.
In a letter to House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, Commerce Department Legislative Affairs Director Charles Kolo Rathburn said Cummings’ decision to go ahead with a vote to hold Ross in contempt forced Trump’s hand.
“It is disappointing that you have rejected the Department of Commerce’s request to delay the vote of the Committee on Oversight and Reform on a contempt finding against the Secretary this morning. By doing so, you have abandoned the accommodation process with respect to the Committee’s January 8, 2019 request for documents and information and April 2, 2019 subpoena for documents concerning the Secretary’s decision to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 Census,” said Rathburn, a political appointee who is performing the duties of the Assistant Secretary [of Commerce] for Legislative Affairs because President Trump has not nominated anyone to fill the Senate-confirmed position.”
“Accordingly, I hereby advise you that the President has asserted executive privilege over the specific subset of the documents identified by the Committee in its June 3, 2019 letter — documents that are clearly protected from disclosure by the deliberative process, attorney-client communications, or attorney work product components of executive privilege.”
Additionally, Rathburn said Trump will use the privilege to withhold all documents the committee had subpoenaed on April 2 as part of its investigation into whether the his administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census was an attempt to reduce the counted population of Democratic-leaning minority groups.
The decennial census, a requirement laid out in Article I, Section II of the Constitution, is required in order to determine how many seats in the House of Representatives — and electoral votes — will be allocated to each state.
Because the Constitution requires the census to count “the whole number of persons in each state,” most experts say a question on citizenship — a subject which the census has not asked about in more than half a century — is unnecessary.
While the Commerce Department says adding the question is necessary — even without performing the statistical testing required by law — to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, experts also say adding such a question would result in fewer responses from Latino households in which some members are undocumented.
After a number of states sued the Trump administration in hopes of blocking Ross from adding a question that could potentially cause them to lose representation in Congress, a district court judge found the Commerce Department to have violated the Administrative Procedure Act by acting in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner when deciding whether to add the question.
The judge’s detailed finding of fact did not address whether the Trump administration’s decision to add the question was motivated by a desire to hurt Democrats or dilute minority representation, and the administration’s appeal is currently before the Supreme Court.
But the case was upended last month after the progressive advocacy group Common Cause obtained a cache of documents from the daughter of a deceased GOP redistricting expert.
Those documents reveal that the expert, Thomas Hofeller, had corresponded with Commerce Department officials and other top Republicans about how the GOP could gain an advantage from the addition of a citizenship question to the census.
As a result, members of Cummings’ committee are hoping to look into whether Ross or other administration officials committed perjury when testifying before Congress or as part of the lawsuit over the citizenship question.
While the President customarily has broad latitude when claiming executive privilege — meant to protect presidential communications so as to give the chief executive the benefit of candid advice — courts have placed some restrictions on its uses.
In 1974, a unanimous Supreme Court held in United States v. Nixon that a president could not use a claim of executive privilege to defy a judicial subpoena.
But one executive privilege expert — University of Virginia law professor Saikrishna Prakash — cautioned that the Nixon ruling does not apply to a Congressional subpoena.
“[The] Nixon [case]…was…an actual prosecution as opposed to Congress being involved, and the court…set aside the question of whether [executive] privilege ought to apply or how it would apply to Congress,” said Prakash, a Senior Fellow at UVA’s Miller Center.
“The [Supreme] Court has never said how the executive privilege applies to Congress if it does apply to Congress, but the lower courts seem to think that it does.”
Prakash predicted that the Trump administration’s invocation of executive privilege will be “the first step in a complicated dance” which will most likely end with some sort of negotiated settlement between the administration and Congress.
But if the White House asks the judicial branch to declare that the President can use executive privilege to block Congressional investigations, Prakash said it’s possible that a court would find that Congress’ interest in determining whether members of the executive branch broke the law to be sufficient enough to pierce the veil the administration hopes to draw around its actions.
“One could always say, ‘we’re worried about the possible, uh, possible, uh, uh, possible crimes by executive branch officials and therefore we need this information.’ If that’s enough to overcome the privilege, you might understand that as saying that, in effect, there is no privilege vis-a-vis Congress.”
“That might very well be the right answer, but it’s not an answer that the courts have given us yet,” he said, adding that House Democrats will most likely use such an argument if they try to enforce their subpoena in court.
Three Democratic Senators Came Not to Bury the FCC’s Net Neutrality Rules, But to Praise Them
WASHINGTON, June 12, 2019 – A trio of Democratic senators on Tuesday called for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow a vote on legislation to roll back the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of network neutrality regulations put in place during the Obama administration.
Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., each took to the Senate floor on Tuesday to demand that McConnell, R-Ky., bring the Save the Internet Act to the floor for a vote. The Markey-authored legislation would turn back the regulatory clock to June 11, 2018, just as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s repeal of the Obama-era Open Internet regulations was taking effect.
“I rise today in defense of net neutrality. In April, the House of Representatives took an important step in passing the Save the Internet Act legislation that would…restore net neutrality protections,” said Markey, who has been a strong proponent of rules to prevent broadband providers from blocking or throttling customers’ internet traffic since his days representing Massachusetts in the House of Representatives.
Markey noted that the Senate passed a so-called “resolution of disapproval” last year to use the Congressional Review Act to overturn the FCC’s repeal of the Obama-era rules, but added that he was offering up the Save the Internet Act because the CRA is no longer an option.
“Unfortunately, our Republican colleague are failing to listen to the voices of their constituents and plan to block the vote from happening,” he said.
“Let’s be clear. Net Neutrality is just another way in which the Republican Party refuses to side with the ordinary people in our country.”
Wyden echoes the high stakes involving in politicizing net neutrality
Wyden, who has frequently collaborated with Markey on network neutrality legislation, rose when his colleague had finished to echo the Massachusetts senator’s call for action and explain the stakes.
“Net neutrality — the free and open internet — says that once you have access to the internet, you get to go where you want, when you want and how you want,” Wyden said before noting that both he and Markey have been pushing for strong network neutrality protections for more than ten years.
Responding to critics of his bill who’ve said that the current FCC rules have not resulted in the far-reaching consequences predicted by network neutrality proponents, Wyden explained that the changes he and others fear are often slow in coming.
“Here’s the reality — these changes that hurt consumers don’t come all at once, and that’s for a reason. Big cable companies count on making them in steady, creeping ways that go unnoticed — it’s death by a thousand inconveniences,” he said.
The Oregon senator offered as an example the recent proliferation of “unlimited” data plans “that totally throw away the definition of the word ‘unlimited.'”
“To understand the complicated limits on internet access in these newfangled “unlimited” plans, you practically need a graduate degree in big-cable legal jargon,” Wyden said. “Consumers might be forced to swallow hard and accept it, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.”
Wyden also noted that the rise of mega-mergers between content providers and broadband network operators — like the recent merger between Time-Warner and AT&T — can threaten consumers by eroding competition, reducing the number of available choices, and giving rise to anti-competitive bundling deals in which network operators don’t charge for access to one preferred content provider but do so for all others.
“That’s a bad deal for consumers who ought to be able to access what they want and when they want. It’s also a nightmare for startup companies who won’t be able to afford special treatment and won’t be able to compete with the big guys,” he said.
Cantwell says that net neutrality rules are needed to protect jobs from internet companies
Cantwell, D-Wash., noted that strong network neutrality rules would protect the 15,000 internet companies which provide 377,000 jobs and make up one-fifth of the economy in her state.
“We know we have to fight back against companies who gouge consumers or suppress competition. And being one year since the FCC decided to turn back protections for the internet, we’re here today because we know that we’ve already seen the inklings of what is more to come,” she said before adding that broadband provides are already “doing things that are slowing down or charging consumers more.”
Network neutrality rules, Cantwell said, drew comments from more than 20,000 consumers who told the FCC to keep strong protections in place.
“They do not want to see large-scale companies overcharging or gouging them,” she said.
Cantwell argued that strong network neutrality protections are good for the economy because they allow the internet to be a “great equalizer” that is “helping people from different backgrounds participate in our economy.”
“But innovative businesses in every small town and every city need to have an internet that is going to give them access to create jobs and move their local economies forward,” she added, warning that consolidation threatened the internet’s record as an economic engine.
“Today, in the United States, three cable companies – just three cable companies – have control of internet access for 70 percent of Americans. And 80 percent of rural Americans still only have one choice for high-speed broadband in their homes and businesses,” she said.
“So we’re not going to get likely competition where the consumer can just say ‘You’re artificially slowing me down. You’re charging me too much. I’m just going to go to the competition.’ That’s not likely to happen.”
“That is why we need a strong FCC approach to protecting an open internet and saying that they shouldn’t block, they shouldn’t throttle, they shouldn’t manipulate internet access. And without these protections, big cable can move faster in charging more,” Cantwell said.
“I ask my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to say that it’s time to hold these companies accountable and put consumers ahead of these big cable profits.”
(Photo of Sen. Ed Markey on the Senate floor on Tuesday.)