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Regulatory scrutiny should apply to all content providers, including telecom companies: former Facebook executive

Akiko Fujita
·Anchor/Reporter
·4 min read

The violent insurrection last week reignited criticism against social media companies for their role in the buildup to the violence at the U.S. Capitol.

But Matt Perault, former director of public policy at Facebook, said telecommunications companies like AT&T (T) and Verizon Communications (VZ), the parent company of Yahoo Finance, should be equally scrutinized.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance Live, Perault said any regulation emerging from the riots should be applied ‘consistently’ across all content providers.

“If you take the view that these views are so pernicious that they should not be heard on any communication platform, then you can't just look at social networks,” said Perault, currently director of the Center on Science and Technology Policy at Duke University. “You have to look at other components of the tech sector such as cloud providers, for instance, and then you would also have to look at telecommunications providers like AT&T and Verizon.”

Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) have scrambled to act quickly, amid growing criticism against their platforms in the wake of the events on Jan. 6. Twitter permanently banned President Donald Trump on Friday and shut down his account with more than 80 million followers, citing the “risk of further incitement of violence.” Facebook stopped short of that, suspending Trump’s account until at least the inauguration.

The crackdown has extended to the president’s staunch followers. On Tuesday, Twitter announced it had removed more than 70,000 accounts that promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory, while Facebook said it was scrubbing content using “stop the steal,” a rallying cry for Trump’s supporters.

Photo by: zz/STRF/STAR MAX/IPx 2021 1/12/21 Twitter suspends 70,000 accounts linked to QAnon. STAR MAX File Photo: 1/6/21 The United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. was breached by thousands of protesters during a "Stop The Steal" rally in support of President Donald Trump during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. The demonstrators were protesting the results of the 2020 United States presidential election where Donald Trump was defeated by Joe Biden. While there was a significant police presence attempting to keep the peace - including law enforcement officers and agents from The U.S. Capitol Police, The Virginia State Police, The Metropolitan Police of The District of Columbia, The National Guard, and The FBI - demonstrators used chemical irritants to breach the interior of The Capitol Building. This, while the Democratic Party gained control of The United States Senate - sweeping the Georgia Runoff Election and securing two additional seats. (Washington, D.C.)
Photo by: zz/STRF/STAR MAX/IPx 2021 1/12/21 Twitter suspends 70,000 accounts linked to QAnon. STAR MAX File Photo: 1/6/21 The United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. was breached by thousands of protesters during a "Stop The Steal" rally in support of President Donald Trump during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. The demonstrators were protesting the results of the 2020 United States presidential election where Donald Trump was defeated by Joe Biden. While there was a significant police presence attempting to keep the peace - including law enforcement officers and agents from The U.S. Capitol Police, The Virginia State Police, The Metropolitan Police of The District of Columbia, The National Guard, and The FBI - demonstrators used chemical irritants to breach the interior of The Capitol Building. This, while the Democratic Party gained control of The United States Senate - sweeping the Georgia Runoff Election and securing two additional seats. (Washington, D.C.)

Amazon (AMZN), Google (GOOG), and Apple (AAPL) have all moved to crackdown on conservative social media platform Parler, a popular app used by the president’s followers and many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol. Google and Apple removed it from their app stores, while Amazon said it would remove Parler from its cloud hosting service, Amazon Web Services, effectively shutting down the platform. Parler sued Amazon Monday, claiming the suspension violated antitrust law and breached the companies' contractual arrangement.

“This was a clear example of their platforms being used to create real world harm and from [the tech companies’] perspective that was always the dividing line. Speech would be permissible real world harm would be problematic,” Perault said.

The latest moves have reignited the calls to regulate Big Tech. Google and Facebook already face antitrust lawsuits filed by the Department of Justice and state attorneys general. But Republican lawmakers have long set their eyes on content regulation, calling for a repeal of Section 230 of The Communications Decency Act, the 1996 law that gives websites that host user-generated content broad protection from legal liability for content posted on their sites.

Telecommunications companies have largely escaped public scrutiny so far, despite carrying conservative cable networks like One America News and Newsmax which have peddled conspiracy theories, falsely alleging widespread fraud in the presidential election.

Still, Comcast (CMCSA), AT&T, and Verizon have all moved to distance themselves from Republican lawmakers, with all three companies announcing they will suspend political contributions made to members of Congress who voted to object to the certification of Electoral College votes.

At least one lawmaker has singled out telecommunications firms’ role in disseminating content related to the Washington riots. In a letter to mobile carriers, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) urged the companies to preserve content and associated meta-data connected to the insurrection, calling it “critical evidence in helping to bring the rioters to justice.”

Perault said the inquiries strengthen the case, that the investigation into what led to the violence and ensuing regulation, should go beyond tech.

“We should advocate for a regulatory landscape that supports a range of different perspectives and speech perspectives. That would mean the speech perspectives on social networks, but also the speech on telecommunications providers,” Perault said. “But if we are going to be more stringent and regulating them and censoring speech, then we should do it consistently across the providers.”

Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita