House Push to Tackle Social-Media Bias Cuts Against GOP Orthodoxy

Republicans recognize their plans to suppress Silicon Valley’s alleged anti-conservative bias are in tension with a hands-off approach to regulation. But which route will they ultimately choose?

Rep. Steve King
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
July 17, 2018, 8 p.m.

In their bid to address the perception that Silicon Valley unfairly censors and discriminates against conservative users, Republicans are taking a page out of the Democratic playbook.

After all, it’s typically Democratic lawmakers who float forceful fixes such as lowering liability protections for certain industries, or even designating those industries as public utilities. But during Tuesday’s hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, it was Republican members who were dangling the threat of regulation over the heads of representatives from Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Over the course of the hearing, several GOP lawmakers floated vague plans for new legislation designed to curb what they view as a tendency of the country’s top social-media platforms to place their thumb on the scale in favor of liberal political content. Of particular interest was a further loosening of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech platforms from being sued in relation to content posted by their users and was already weakened through anti-sex-trafficking legislation passed earlier this year.

“I’m all for freedom of speech and for free enterprise, and for competition and finding a way that we can have competition that does its own regulation so government doesn’t have to,” Rep. Steve King said. “But if this gets further out of hand, it appears to me that Section 230 needs to be reviewed. And one of the discussions that I’m hearing is, what about converting the large, behemoth organizations that we’re talking about here into public utilities?”

King’s concern stems from a series of events that appear to indicate bias against right-leaning content at Facebook, Google, and Twitter. He and other conservatives point to a series of reports in the last several months that they believe prove Silicon Valley has it out for them. Those include Twitter’s decision to block an antiabortion campaign video from Rep. Marsha Blackburn last fall, the April labeling of pro-Trump celebrities Diamond and Silk’s channel as “unsafe” by Facebook’s content moderators, and a May Google search that listed the California Republican Party’s ideology as “Nazism.”

The tech platforms contend that these and other instances were honest mistakes made by algorithms or their content moderators, and that they are working expeditiously to correct the problem. But that didn’t stop lawmakers, including Chairman Bob Goodlatte, from questioning whether tougher laws are needed to allow users to sue for perceived bias or censorship.

“Ordinarily, the sort of liability exemptions that social-media platforms enjoy are only granted to regulated utilities like phone companies,” Goodlatte said.

“Why should your companies be treated differently?” he asked.

Conservatives both inside and outside of Congress say they understand the inherent tension between the threatened crackdown and their broader economic philosophy.

“I’m a conservative. I don’t want the government regulating private business,” said Eric Wilson, a former digital strategist for Sen. Marco Rubio's and Ed Gillespie’s political campaigns. “But at a certain point, you have to say enough is enough.”

Dan Gainor, the vice president for business and culture at the right-wing Media Research Center, said his organization is only looking for a fair shake from Silicon Valley—and certainly doesn’t seek to punish their success.

“We’ve got to work with these companies and not go to war with them,” he said. “We’re happy that these businesses are able to succeed. We would certainly like them to succeed while giving everybody the same, fair treatment.”

But Tuesday’s hearing showed few signs of a détente between Republicans and the tech industry on the issue of bias. In fact, the only argument against additional regulation came from Rep. Ted Lieu, a liberal Democrat from California. Lieu’s impassioned defense of Silicon Valley’s economic liberty prompted Rep. Matt Gaetz—another Republican who’s open to stripping more of Section 230’s protections from the tech platforms—to burnish his libertarian bona fides.

“When they indicate that the government should not foist on the technology community the overregulation of the government, I completely agree,” Gaetz said. “My question is, when you avail yourself to the protections of Section 230, do you necessarily surrender some of your rights as a public speaker?”

Still, it’s not clear that Republican threats to regulate the tech industry over its perceived bias will ever get off the ground. Speaking after the hearing, King told National Journal he understands how some of his policy prescriptions to combat alleged social-media bias—particularly the idea to designate the companies as public utilities—are outside the norm of Republican policymaking. The congressman suggested his hard line is meant only to scare Silicon Valley into remedying the issue themselves.

“I’m not advocating for regulating,” King said. “I’m just saying put them on the spot, give them an opportunity to fix it, [and] remind them of what can happen if they don’t.”

Other observers see a more obvious strategy in the hearing, the committee’s second this year on social-media bias. Zach Graves, the head of policy at libertarian tech group the Lincoln Network, sees the issue as an easy way for Republicans to rile up a disgruntled voter base that already believes Silicon Valley is hostile to their world view.

“It seems like some of this is inflated blustering going into an election,” Graves said. “Whether that will persist going into next year, after the election? I don’t know.”

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