Capitol Hill violence stokes ire at Fb, Google and Twitter

JANUARY 08: The US Capitol Building is seen two days after a pro-Trump mob broke into the US Capitol Building on January 08, 2021 in Washington, DC. Democratic congressional leaders threatened to indict President Donald Trump for encouraging the mob that stormed the Capitol. (Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Tech giants Facebook, Google, and Twitter are likely to face scrutiny of their roles in preparing for the deadly riot in the U.S. Capitol this week. With Democrats now in control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the focus is once again on regulation to curb the oversized reach and influence of social media platforms.

The violence that erupted Wednesday afternoon when a crowd of supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol while voting to confirm the victory of President-elect Joe Biden has led some Democrats to call for stricter regulations on businesses . Twitter and Facebook each banned Trump’s accounts from commenting on fire after the riot, but some lawmakers said it was too little, too late.

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“You have primary responsibility for ignoring repeated red flags and calls for corrections,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Conn. Democrat, told the Washington Post Friday. The senator said companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter should have acted faster than the riot unfolded rather than waiting “long after the blood and glass were in the Capitol halls.”

He added that “these events will renew and realign the need for Congress to reform big tech”.

On Friday evening, Twitter took the unusual step of permanently suspending Trump’s account and declaring that “the risk of further incitement to violence” was too great. The company too Friday blocked the accounts by General Michael Flynn, attorney Sidney Powell, and a number of other proponents of the QAnon false conspiracy theory advocated by many of President Donald Trump’s most ardent fans.

All of this will happen if the Democrats win control of the Senate by winning the two runoff elections in Georgia on Tuesday. Jon Ossoff defeated Republican incumbent David Purdue and Raphael Warnock won his race against Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler to give the Senate a 50:50 split between Democrats and Republicans. With Vice President-elect Kamala Harris balancing the votes in the Chamber, Democrats will now have more power to push legislation through Senate committees and put them to the vote.

This will give Democrats greater leverage to advance their existing tech agendas, which has already included a skepticism about the size and power of big tech companies. The horrific scenes at the Capitol this week and the frustration over the role social media has played in amplifying violence and misinformation on the internet are likely to spur lawmakers, especially Democrats, to action.

“The existing exam is now being multiplied ten times,” said Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy.

Section 230

Legislators of both parties have called for changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects social media companies from complaints about the content their users post on their platforms. The rampant stream of hate speech and disinformation on social media, including foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and President Trump’s arson for upholding lies about the election results, has worried Democrats. And they have tried to limit that protections to encourage social media companies to be more proactive in getting rid of false and inflammatory content.

Republicans, led by Trump, have also criticized Section 230, but for a variety of reasons. They claim that their speech is censored by social media sites. Earlier this year, Trump issued an order to have the FCC investigate how the agency can ensure social media companies do not censor content on their websites. To draw more attention to the issue, Trump vetoed a Critical Defense Funding Bill because it did not contain a repeal of Section 230.

With the Democrats now in control of the Senate and House of Representatives, it will likely try again to hold the major social media platforms accountable if violent, threatening, or other dangerous content is not removed.

New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone Jr., chairman of the House’s energy and trade committee, said his committee is already “looking into ways to motivate all social media platforms to crack down on disinformation, extremism and other online abuses.”

In a statement, he added: “The events of the past few days have only shown how important and consistent it is that we all take this seriously.”

However, the digital watchdog group Fight for the Future warns lawmakers not to go too far when it comes to regulating Section 230.

“Some Democrats have already targeted 230, mistakenly believing that creating legislative changes would incentivize web platforms to better moderate dangerous content and misinformation,” Fight for the Future deputy director Evan Greer wrote in a Friday for FastCompany released. “Section 230 allows these private companies to block Trump’s account from making speeches that, while clearly dangerous, may not technically be illegal. And hasty changes to 230 would almost certainly do more harm than good.”

TechFreedom think tank for digital rights also warns that Democrats are going too far to contain problematic online content.

“You can try whatever you want to reform Section 230, but there is still the first constitutional amendment to protect freedom of expression,” said Berin Szoka, president and founder of TechFreedom. “Whatever the Democrats are trying to get platforms to handle terrible content, they have to be very narrow in scope.”

As a result, Szoka said that changing section 230 alone would not solve the problem.

“The § 230 debate is based on the assumption that this problem can be fixed,” he said. “And that’s not it.”

Still, the biggest tech companies say they are on board with some reforms of the section. 230 – with some restrictions. At a hearing of the Senate Trade Committee in October, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg admitted that social media platforms “have responsibilities and it may make sense to be responsible for some of the content on the platform”.

At the same hearing, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey proposed regulations that allow companies to make their moderation processes more transparent. He also said companies could devise clear ways for users to challenge their content moderation decisions and give users more choices in how algorithms sort their content.

Still, he warned lawmakers not to go too far with their reforms. And he warned that a persistent approach could stifle smaller startups in particular.

“Most of all, we want to make sure that new businesses can continue to contribute to the Internet and conversation,” said Dorsey.

Antitrust and data protection regulations

The reform under Section 230 is not the only regulation these companies should fear. Democratic lawmakers have also looked at their data collection practices and the use of their users’ personal data. House Democrats in a report last year concluded that Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google are all engaging in anti-competitive practices and raising major antitrust concerns.

Google and Facebook have already faced several lawsuits from law enforcement agencies at the federal and state levels, as well as from regulatory agencies. And it could get worse for these companies as the Democrats, encouraged and disgruntled by the Capitol Rebellion, could push for more aggressive enforcement and amendment of antitrust laws that would make it easier for the federal government to crack down on these companies or even break them up.

Sohn said she also expects Democrats to push privacy laws that restrict what personal information these companies can collect about users and how they can use the data to train their algorithms to target people online.

“The overwhelming influence of these companies depends on the fact that they are just too big and have too much personal information,” she said.

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