Cruz, Hawley Want the FTC to Probe Social Media Content Curation
(Bloomberg) -- Two key Republican senators pressed the Federal Trade Commission to investigate how Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Twitter Inc. decide what content appears on their social media platforms, calling the companies’ power a potential threat to democracy.
Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri made their demand in a letter sent to the FTC on Monday, a day before a hearing by a Senate panel into social media bias that will feature testimony from a top Google executive. The letter and hearing come just days after President Donald Trump aired similar grievances at a White House summit of conservative tech critics, fringe social media voices and GOP lawmakers including Hawley.
“Big tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter exercise enormous influence on speech,” the two Republican senators wrote in the letter, which Hawley’s office provided. “They control the ads we see, the news we read, and the information we digest. And they actively censor some content and amplify other content based on algorithms and intentional decisions that are completely nontransparent.”
The request comes as Republicans increasingly allege that the companies engage in systematic anti-conservative bias, an unsupported claim. But the possibilities for abuse “are alarming and endless,” including potentially swaying elections, the senators said.
Like Trump, both senators have been vocal about claims that social media silences conservatives. Cruz, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, is scheduled to hold a hearing Tuesday on Google’s “censorship.” The company’s global policy chief, Karan Bhatia, will testify, he said in a Monday opinion piece.
“We go to extraordinary lengths to build our products and enforce our policies in such a way that political leanings are not taken into account,” Bhatia wrote in Fox News.
All three companies have previously said they don’t make content decisions based on politics, though they have acknowledged occasional mistakes in taking down or limiting the reach of content or accounts of conservatives.
“Importantly, these mistakes have affected both parties and are not the product of bias,” Bhatia wrote in his opinion piece. Spokesmen for Facebook and Twitter declined to comment on Monday.
Cruz has said his views are based on anecdotes rather than rigorous data, which he blames on the opaque nature of the companies’ decisions regarding content.
Hawley has previously proposed legislation that would require tech platforms to prove to the FTC that they’re politically neutral in their content decisions if they want to keep a key liability shield that protects them from lawsuits over content that third parties post on their platforms. Hawley was the featured speaker during Trump’s summit, during which the president called his bill “very important.”
Almost 65% of Republicans or those who lean Republican believe big tech companies support liberal views over conservative ones, and 85% think it’s at least somewhat likely the companies are intentionally censoring political viewpoints, according to a Pew Research Center survey from last year.
The FTC has authority to collect non-public information from companies and study matters related to competition and consumer protection, even if the issue isn’t related to a law enforcement matter. It has opened an investigation into how Internet service providers collect and use consumer data, and the agency has also started a task force to probe potentially anti-competitive conduct by tech giants.
The Justice Department and FTC also have taken the first steps toward specific investigations of four big tech firms for antitrust violations. The Justice Department has taken responsibility for Google and Apple Inc., while the FTC will oversee Facebook and Amazon.com Inc.
(Updates with Google response from fifth paragraph)
--With assistance from David McLaughlin.
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