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.
Donald Trump Declares Another Emergency, Bans Huawei from U.S. Commerce for Trading With Iran
WASHINGTON, May 15, 2019 – Exactly three months after invoking the National Emergencies Act to fund his wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, President Donald Trump is using emergency powers to enable the Department of Commerce to ban U.S. telecommunications equipment manufacturers from selling chips to the Chinese state-owned equipment manufacturer Huawei.
The administration blamed Huawei’s alleged trade with Iran as a reason for the designation.
The President on Wednesday signed an Executive Order declaring a national emergency with respect to foreign espionage using U.S. communication networks and prohibiting “any acquisition, importation, transfer, installation, dealing in, or use of any information and communications technology or service” in which a foreign government holds an interest.
“The President has made it clear that this administration will do what it takes to keep America safe and prosperous, and to protect America from foreign adversaries who are actively and increasingly creating and exploiting vulnerabilities in information and communications technology infrastructure and services in the United States,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
Shortly after the White House released the new Executive Order, the Commerce Department turned the authority granted it by Trump’s order into action with an announcement that the department’s Bureau of Industry and Security would add Huawei to its “entity list” of banned companies based on “information available to the Department that provides a reasonable basis to conclude that Huawei is engaged in activities that are contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interest.”
The Commerce Department statement blamed Huawei for engaging “in activities that are contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interest. This information includes the activities alleged in the Department of Justice’s public superseding indictment of Huawei, including alleged violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, conspiracy to violate IEEPA by providing prohibited financial services to Iran, and obstruction of justice in connection with the investigation of those alleged violations of U.S. sanctions.”
“This action by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, with the support of the President of the United States, places Huawei, a Chinese owned company that is the largest telecommunications equipment producer in the world, on the Entity List. This will prevent American technology from being used by foreign owned entities in ways that potentially undermine U.S. national security or foreign policy interests,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement Wednesday.
“President Trump has directed the Commerce Department to be vigilant in its protection of national security activities. Since the beginning of the Administration, the Department has added 190 persons or organizations to the Entity List, as well as instituted five investigations of the effect of imports on national security under Section 232 of the Trade Act of 1962.”
The Commerce Department’s action means that Americans will need a license from the department in order to sell or otherwise transfer technology to Huawei, which can be denied if the transfer would harm American interests.
Inclusion on the Entity List could be a massive blow to Huawei’s bottom line in favor of an American company like Qualcomm, as many mobile phones and other wireless devices require such chips.
The Commerce Department took a similar action with another Chinese manufacturer, ZTE, earlier this year, but rescinded the decision after Chinese President Xi Jinping made a personal request to President Trump to have the company removed from the Entity List.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai also issued a statement in support of the action, saying that he “applaud[ed] the President for issuing this Executive Order to safeguard the communications supply chain. Given the threats presented by certain foreign companies’ equipment and services, this is a significant step toward securing America’s networks.”
White House Anti-Counterfeit Measure Could Strike at Amazon and eBay
WASHINGTON, April 4, 2019 — The White House’s latest move to protect American industries and consumers from counterfeiting could potentially give President Trump an opening to hit back at some of his favorite targets.
National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro on Wednesday announced that the President had signed a Presidential Memorandum to combat “a very serious problem” — the trafficking of counterfeit goods through online marketplaces like Amazon, AliBaba, and eBay.
“President Trump has decided that it’s time to clean up this wild west of counterfeiting and trafficking,” said Navarro.
Navarro told reporters that the administration’s strategy for combatting counterfeit goods would follow what is now a well-established process of using a Presidential Memorandum to order a study to determine what executive actions can be taken to accomplish a particular goal, followed by an Executive Order to implement the actions recommended by the study.
Consumers, he said, have a 50 percent chance of receiving counterfeit goods through online marketplaces like Amazon, citing data collected during a Customs and Border Protection operation. But shortly after that he admitted that administration officials “certainly don’t know with any certainty how much counterfeiting is going on,” from where the counterfeit goods are coming, or how they are making it into the United States.
Still, Navarro said sites operated by companies like Amazon represent the “central core” of the problem and suggested that the administration is looking for ways to punish them if counterfeit goods are sold through their platform.
“Right now these third-party online marketplaces, together with the ecosystem that supports them…have essentially zero liability when it comes to these counterfeit goods,” he said. “That simply has to stop.”
Making a third-party marketplace operator like Amazon financially liable if counterfeit goods are sold on its platform could potentially deal a huge blow to the company and would undoubtedly impact the bottom line of founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, whom the president has attacked in retaliation for his ownership of The Washington Post.
Trump frequently suggests that Bezos’ purchase of the venerable newspaper — which he often derides as the “Amazon Washington Post” or as a “Lobbyist Newspaper” — was meant to allow him to intimidate politicians and prevent the retail giant from being subject to regulation.
Asked whether there was a chance that Trump’s enmity for Bezos played a role in his decision to go after online marketplaces, Navarro replied that there was “absolutely zero” chance that Trump’s memorandum is a way of targeting Amazon.
A senior White House official who was contacted by BeltwayBreakfast explained that this latest use of executive authority came to be as a response to “the numerous calls for help from American manufacturers hammered by counterfeiters.”
While the President cannot unilaterally change laws to make third-party marketplace owners liable for the goods sold on their platforms, the official said the study ordered by the memorandum would guide the administration’s next steps, including possible legislation.
An Amazon spokesperson that BeltwayBreakfast reached by email declined to address the possibility that Trump could once again be targeting Amazon, but noted in a statement that the company “strictly prohibits the sale of counterfeit products” and welcomes support from law enforcement.
The spokesperson added that the company “invests heavily in proactive measures to prevent counterfeit goods from ever reaching our stores,” and spends approximately $400 million each year to fight “counterfeits, frauds, and other forms of abuse” with tools that “ensure that over 99% of the products that customers view on Amazon never receive a complaint about counterfeits.”
“Bad actors that attempt to abuse our store do not reflect the flourishing community of honest entrepreneurs that make up the vast majority of our seller community,” the spokesperson said. “We estimate these businesses have created more than 900,000 jobs worldwide and they provide our customers with vast, authentic selection.”
Democrats in Congress Attempt to Reinstate Net Neutrality with Maneuver Against FCC
WASHINGTON, March 6, 2019 – On Wednesday, 46 House and Senate Democrats moved forward with legislation that would codify so-called “network neutrality” legislation into law, bypassing a court dispute over their repeal by the Trump administration Federal Communications Commission.
The Save the Internet Act of 2019 would once re-instate network neutrality rules using an approach similar to last year’s attempt to use the Congressional Review Act to disapprove of the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality.
Last year’s CRA passed the Senate, but was never brought up for a vote in the House by the then-Republican majority.
Instead of enacting statutory prohibitions against paid prioritization, blocking and throttling of internet traffic by service providers, thereby writing network neutrality principles into what President Lyndon Johnson once called “the books of law,” the Save the Internet Act would declare that repeal order adopted by the FCC in December 2017 “shall have no force or effect,” and would prohibit the agency from reissuing any rule that is “substantially the same” as the one which repealed the 2015 rules, unless specifically authorized by an act of Congress.
If signed into law by President Donald Trump, the Save the Internet Act would literally turn back the regulatory clock by restoring the network neutrality regulations which were in effect on the last day of the Obama administration.
The similarities between this latest legislative effort to restore the Obama-era network neutrality rules and last year’s Congressional Review Act resolution go beyond the legislation’s text. The bill’s lead sponsors are Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn. and Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass., the duo behind the attempt to use a Congressional Review Act resolution to undo what was one of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s top priorities.
“Net neutrality ensures that when you pay your monthly bill to your internet service provider, you can able to access all content on the web at the same speed as your neighbor or big corporations,” said Markey, who has been a passionate advocate of strong network neutrality protections since the George W. Bush administration.
Markey called the Save the Internet Act a “clear and simple” piece of legislation, meant to “overturn the Trump FCC’s wrongheaded decision and restore strong net neutrality protections.”
Like last year’s Congressional Review Act resolution, this year’s Markey-Doyle team-up has the support of Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate.
Supported by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
“It is an honor to join Democrats from both sides of the Capitol to introduce this strong legislation, which honors the will of the millions of Americans speaking out to demand an end to the Trump assault on net neutrality,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “Democrats are proudly taking bold action to restore net neutrality protections: lowering costs and increasing choice for consumers, giving entrepreneurs a level playing field on which to compete, helping bring broadband to every corner of the country, and ensuring that American innovation and entrepreneurialism can continue to be the envy of the world.”
Chris Lewis, Vice President of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, hailed the Markey-Doyle bill as “a simple, consensus approach to restoring strong net neutrality protections” with support from “a diverse and broad array of industry, nonprofit, racial justice, and other organizations.”
FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said he was “pleased” with the proposed legislation.
“I continue to believe that the FCC’s 2015 Net Neutrality rules were the right approach and the bill introduced today takes us back in that direction—a direction that will empower the FCC to keep the internet open as a gateway to opportunity for students, job seekers, consumers, creators, and businesses,” said Starks, a Democrat and the newest member of the FCC.
Narrow CRA-like approach potentially on shaky legal ground
Representatives from Markey’s office did not respond to BroadbandBreakfast.com’s inquiry as to why Democrats were trying to restore old regulations rather than codify net neutrality protections into statutory language.
One longtime telecom industry observer suggested that the “simple, consensus approach” spoken of by Public Knowledge’s Lewis may be on shaky legal ground.
According to Berin Szoka, president of free-market think tank TechFreedom, the one-page bill is “a total sham, a fraud that cynically manipulates concern about net neutrality in a way that is carefully calculated to maximize Democrats’ political advantage instead of actually doing anything to protect net neutrality.”
Szoka suggested that Democrats, who managed to peel away three Senate Republican votes during last year’s CRA effort, are setting themselves up to use the copycat Markey-Doyle bill as a political bludgeon in hopes of gaining those Senate seats after the 2020 election.
He also noted that regardless of motivations, the legal basis on which the Democrats’ bill would revive the 2015 network neutrality rules is potentially shaky.
“Rarely, if ever, has such a short bill raised so many obvious legal problems,” Szoka said, noting that the Congressional Review Act — the authority on which the Save the Internet Act is based — allows Congress to strike down rules issued by regulatory agencies like the FCC, but not the orders by which an agency interprets provisions of a statute.
“Simply reviving a defunct regulatory order isn’t legislation, and probably wouldn’t stand up in court when challenged,” he said, adding that the bill is likely dead-on-arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate.
(Screenshot of Sen. Ed Markey courtesy MSNBC.)