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As Google’s CEO Testifies Before Congress, Conservatives Stew About Social Media ‘Censorship’

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WASHINGTON, December 11, 2018 — Republicans and conservative activists used Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing with Google CEO Sundar Pichai to revive claims that large technology companies are biased against them. But these same activists appear unwilling to accept any result that doesn’t validate their claim.

One prominent Republican who has raised claims of censorship by large technology companies is President Donald Trump, who in August took to Twitter to accuse Google of deliberately manipulating search results to highlight negative stories about him,

“Google search results for “Trump News” shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal?” Trump wrote, suggesting without evidence that 96 percent of search results for “Trump News” came from what he called “National Left-Wing Media.”

“Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation will be addressed!” he added.

At the Tuesday hearing, Pichai rebutted all charges that political bias was present in Google search results. “Our products are build without any bias,” he told legislators – repeatedly.

Facebook is another target of the conservatives’ ire

But at the Google hearing, the critics kept coming. Another frequent target of conservatives’ censorship accusations is Facebook, which has been struggling to harden its platform against foreign disinformation in the two years since Russia’s Internet Research Agency used it to reach millions of Americans with pro-Trump, anti-Clinton messaging.

Some changes Facebook has implemented in the aftermath of 2016 have focused on the algorithm it uses to choose what content users see on the site, others have focused on combatting disinformation and hoax websites masquerading as news organizations.

While Facebook says those changes were made in order to favor original content posted by users’ friends and family, and to elevate local news and fact-checked, trusted news outlets, conservative bloggers say they’ve been targeted for censorship as part of a coordinated campaign by Democrats and their allies.

A ‘conspiracy theorist’ states his case

Jim Hoft, who runs the popular pro-Trump blog the Gateway Pundit, said that the evidence of Facebook’s censorship can be found in his and other conservative news sites’ traffic numbers.

“The top conservative sites on the right noticed this last year, but this year, my traffic has gone from thirty-three percent…to about three percent today. Our little blog had a huge influence on the election, and since that time our advertisers have been targeted, we’ve had two junk lawsuits against us, and our Facebook traffic has been shut down,” Hoft said in an interview.

Hoft was referencing defamation lawsuits against him by a student his site misidentified as a mass shooter, and a State Department employee whom Hoft suggested was a “deep state shill” after he allowed news organizations to use his video of white nationalist James Alex Fields, Jr. using his car to murder anti-racist counter protester Heather Heyer at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Fields was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday.

“I would argue that this is a coordinated attack on conservative sites,’ Hoft said.

When asked who he thought was “coordinating” the “attack,” Hoft replied: “Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I wish I knew.”

Facebook also denies political bias in the administration of its platform

As with Google, Facebook executives have repeatedly denied any bias in how the company runs its platform or enforces its terms of service. Still, but they have attempted to acknowledge conservatives’ concerns by commissioning an external audit of the entire company to determine whether there is any inadvertent political bias in its operations.

The company retained the services of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., then in retirement from politics and a partner at the law firm of Covington and Burling, to conduct the audit.

Kyl returned to the Senate in September after Arizona Governor Doug Ducey tapped him to fill the seat left by death of his onetime colleague, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

A Facebook spokesperson told BeltwayBreakfast that the audit is ongoing under the direction of other Covington and Burling attorneys, and that the company looks forward to sharing the results.

But to Hoft, the results may not matter if they don’t confirm his suspicions.

“If the senator finds there is no bias by Facebook, then no, I won’t accept the results,” he said.

Diamond and Silk aren’t waiting for the results of any social media audit

Two other prominent pro-Trump activists who said they wouldn’t accept any result that doesn’t show pervasive bias against conservatives are Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, the pro-Trump YouTube personalities who go by the name Diamond and Silk online.

Hardaway and Richardson found themselves in the spotlight in April 2018 when they told the House Judiciary Committee that Facebook had allegedly suspended them for being “unsafe to the community.”

During their congressional testimony, Hardaway and Richardson pointed to exchanges with Facebook staff explaining other disciplinary actions the company took against them as evidence of bias, and also cited low viewership numbers for their videos as further evidence of censorship.

In a phone interview with BeltwayBreakfast, the pair continued to cite low viewership numbers as proof of a censorship conspiracy.

“Why is it that somebody with 500,000 followers was able to garner 5,000,000 views, and we have 1,200,000 and we were only able to garner 13,000 on our video?” Hardaway asked during an interview with BroadbandBreakfast.

“There’s something not right with this algorithm system, this algorithm system is discriminating against conservative voices, and they’re censoring and stifling conservative voices,” she added.

Richardson, her “Silk” counterpart, suggested that it was only conservatives who’ve been affected by Facebook’s changes.

“I do not see liberals complaining about any kind of censorship,” she said.

A new ‘Fairness Doctrine’ for the internet?

Despite the myriad conservative activists and politicians claiming systematic bias and calling for regulation, experts haven’t found anything of the sort, and most remain skeptical of the need for what would amount to a renewed “fairness doctrine” — the former Federal Communications Commission regulation that required television and radio stations to give equal time to both sides when discussing controversial issues — for the internet.

One expert who testified in April alongside Hardaway and Richardson, TechFreedom President Berin Szoka, said the idea espoused by some conservatives that government should step in to regulate social media companies is “insane.”

“I don’t think they have any clue what that would mean,” he said, comparing it to the Fairness Doctrine, which was scrapped during the Reagan administration.

That policy, which Szoka called “hugely problematic and impractical,” was long reviled by conservatives. Its’ demise in the 1980s enabled the rise of conservative talk radio.

What some conservatives want for social media “goes way, way beyond” what was required by the Fairness Doctrine, Szoka said, because it would treat companies like Facebook as government actors, meaning they could not restrict speech in any way.

Szoka added that conservatives are wary of Facebook’s attempts to crack down on fake accounts, hoaxes, fabricated news and disinformation because they often benefit from such tactics.

“This is entirely about narrow political interests and short term political interests,” he said.

“Right now the fake news industry is ginning up the American id for the Republican Party. It is not surprising, therefore, that Republicans have suddenly done a complete 180 degree turn on everything they used to say about the Fairness Doctrine, and how the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private actors, just doesn’t apply to the Internet. Instead, they now want a Fairness Doctrine for the internet on steroids,” he said.

‘Popehat’ blog author weighs into the controversy, against social media terms of service

Some conservatives cite the First Amendment when suggesting that technology and social media companies shouldn’t be able to enforce terms of service against political speech. But those who accuse Facebook and others of censorship “pretend that companies like Facebook don’t have free speech rights, and they do,” said Ken White, a former federal prosecutor and free speech advocate who frequently writes about First Amendment issues on the “Popehat” blog.

“Facebook and Twitter and all these other platforms have a right of free expression and free association, and part of that is them creating the type of platform they want to offer to their customers, which may not include me, but that’s their right,” he said.

White said that while some Republicans are using congressional hearings to push the idea that conservatives are being censored, from all the evidence he’s seen, there is no censorship taking place.

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Andrew Feinberg is the Managing Editor and lead Washington Correspondent for Breakfast Media, and covers the White House, Capitol Hill, courts and regulatory agencies for BeltwayBreakfast and BroadbandBreakfast.com. He has written about policy and politics in the nation's capital since 2007.

Tech

Wireless 5G Broadband and Everywhere Connectivity is the Buzz at the Consumer Electronics Show

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Photo of Hans Vestberg at CES2019.

LAS VEGAS, January 9, 2018 – Here at the Consumer Electronics Show, it’s impossible to avoid being bombarded by the energy – real and imagined – surrounding the 5G wireless standard that is just beginning to be deployed.

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg made the communications company’s efforts to nurture, promote and deploy 5G the sum and substance of his Tuesday afternoon keynote at the show.

And in a series of panel discussions on Wednesday, leaders from the technology, media, education and other industries emphasized just how pumped they are for this next generation of wireless connectivity.

Verizon boasts the first commercial deployment of 5G in October 2018, when it went live with fixed-wireless deployments using a 5G networks in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento.

AT&T followed in December, with what it called the first mobile 5G deployment, to parts of 14 cities including Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville (Fla.), Louisville, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Raleigh (N.C.), San Antonio and Waco.

The 5G wireless standard includes transmission both at higher-band frequencies, in the so-called “millimeter wavelength” bands above about 25 Gigahertz (GHz), and in the frequencies below 6 GHz. AT&T deployment was in this latter bandwidth.

Vestberg’s keynote showcased 5G as the “fourth industrial revolution.” In it, he introduced what he called the eight “currencies” of 5G that make it — in his view — more than just another technology standard:

His eight currencies are:

  • Speed and Throughput: Peak data rates of 10 gigabits per second and mobile data volumes of 10 terabits per second per square kilometer.
  • Mobility, Connected Devices and Internet of Things: Mobile devices traveling at up to 500 kilometers per hour can potentially stay connected on a 5G network, and up to one million devices can be supported by 5G in a square kilometer
  • Energy Efficiency and Service Deployment: 5G network equipment and devices will consume only 10 percent of the energy consumed by 4G network equipment and devices, and specialized services that will operate on the 5G network will take much less time to implement.
  • Latency and Reliability: Five millisecond end-to-end travel time of data from the mobile device to the edge of the 5G network – faster than the blink of an eye, and 5G will be more than 99.999 percent  reliable

The very first 5G customer, Houston resident Clayton Harrison receiving Verizon fixed wireless service, made a cameo appearance during Vestberg’s keynote. During the demonstration, he conducted a live speed demonstrating service at 690 Megabits per second (Mbps), which he described as the “low end” of the 600 Mbps to 1.6 Gigabits per second broadband speed that he normally receives.

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Congress

House Republicans Grill Google CEO Sundar Pichai Over Alleged Political Bias

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Photo of Google CEO Sundar Pichai (Drew Clark/Breakfast Media)

WASHINGTON, December 11, 2018 – The CEO of search engine Google came to Washington on Tuesday and politely rebutted all charges that the world’s largest search engine is biased against conservative viewpoints.

In the calm and controlled voice of an engineer, CEO Sundar Pichai said, “Our products are built without any bias,” responding to a question of the House Judiciary Committee Chairman.

“We don’t build partisan features,” he repeated later to another Republican member of the committee.

Indeed, Pichai had to contend with an almost-uninterrupted narrative – fed largely, but not completely, by members of the GOP – that Google’s search engine results were in some way systematically biased.

Moreover, as the head of one of the country’s leading information technology companies, Pichai was robustly challenged on issues ranging from the extent of Google’s surveillance-like data-collection to the existence of prototype search engine that returned restricted results – and is apparently designed to cater to the communist China market.

Pichai didn’t face as much overt hostility as was experienced by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he sat down for his grilling before the same committee after the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal earlier this year. But Pichai wasn’t welcomed very warmly, either.

On privacy, Pichai said that he, like Facebook CEO Zuckerberg, supported Congress considering data privacy legislation.

Does Google exhibit bias in its search engine results?

Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., set a confrontational tone, without being conspiratorial:

“While it is true that Google is not a government entity and so it does not have to comply with the First Amendment, the American people deserve to know what types of information they are not getting when they perform searches on the internet. The market works best when information about products and services is readily available, and so today – on behalf of this Committee and the American consumer – I hope to get answers from Mr. Pichai regarding who at Google makes the judgment calls on whether to filter or block objectionable content and what metrics Google uses to make those decisions.”

Pichai insisted that Google’s algorithms are designed to accurately reflect what people are talking about online at any given time. Google is not “the internet” so much as representing what is on the internet at any given time, he seemed to be saying.

“Any time you type in a keyword, we crawl copies of billions of web pages, and we take the keyword and match it against pages for relevance, freshness, popularity, how others are using the it, and we try to rank and find the best” pages for that particular keyword, he said.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., used this concept to explain why, when an individual conducts a search for the word “idiot” in Google, the image of Donald Trump comes up repeatedly.

Google doesn’t return these results because Google is making this commentary of the president, Lofgren said. Rather, Google is reflected what others internet users are saying.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., made the same point when noting that search results of most of his fellow colleagues were not overtly imbalanced – with the exception of Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa (not a member of the Judiciary Committee) – but has recently made controversial statements about figures linked with white supremacy movements.

“If you are getting bad search results on Google, don’t blame Google, blame yourself,” Lieu said to his Republican colleagues.

“This is the fourth hearing in a series of ridiculous hearings [because] the First Amendment protects private individuals and corporations’ rights to freedom of speech.”

Republican representatives pile on against Google

Still, Republican after Republican had a story to tell about a gripe they had regarding Google results. Many lobbed in questions about Google’s privacy and market power.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, refused to believe that bias was not present in the curation of political content when more than 90 percent of the searches for Donald Trump produce negative stories on the president. He also referred to pro-Trump content being labelled, or “flagged,” as hate speech.

“This doesn’t happen by accident, but is baked into the algorithms,” said Smith.

Pichai disagreed, and referred to the company’s political neutrality in algorithm results as “sacrosanct.”

But Smith wasn’t buying it, and referred to the evidence of political bias on the Google platform as “irrefutable.”

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, contended that virtually every reference to a health care bill that he had introduced was “an attack on our bill.” He had to go to the third or fourth page of the search engine’s results to find one that was “remotely positive.”

Replied Pichai: “We use a methodology about what is being said about a topic at any given time.

“It is in our interest to make sure we reflect what is happening out there in the most effective method possible. Our algorithms have no sense of politics.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., criticized an apparent divergence in the rates that are charged for the keywords being used by Republican candidates versus Democratic candidates.

Pichai said that prices for advertising were determined on the basis of automatic auctions, and that that was “why I am confident that we don’t approach our work with political bias.”

Nonethless, Pichai committed to following up with Issa to looking at the reasons for the divergent pricing of keywords for Republican versus Democratic candidates.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, pressed for details on the information collection capacities of an Android phone. Then, acknowledging that Google had a First Amendment right to present the search results it wanted, added: “I hope we don’t get to the point where government comes in and regulates what is biased, because [Google] is an independent and free company.”

Privacy and China also play a role in the hearing

Pichai was also criticized repeatedly – by representatives of both parties – for its sweeping data-collection practices, and for a reported prototype of a search engine for the Chinese market.

Pichai wiggled on the question of a Chinese search engine: “We have no plans to launch in China,” he said, adding, “Right now, we have no plans to launch search in China.”

Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Penn., finally got the most information out of him, when he acknowledged the existence of a prototype products for “what search would look like” in a country that require mandatory content filtering.

At one point, he said, more than 100 Google engineers were working on the project.

 

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Congress

Will the House Judiciary Committee Fairly Question Google CEO Sundar Pichai at Tuesday Hearing?

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Photo of Google CEO Sundar Pichai by Maurizio Pesce used with permission.

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.

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