Facebook, Google, Twitter to Testify at US House Hearing on Alleged Biased Filtering Practices

Representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube will testify at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on social media filtering, the committee announced on Friday.

The dominant social media platforms face mounting criticism for alleged biased content-filtering practices.

“The hearing will specifically look at concerns regarding a lack of transparency and potential bias in the filtering practices of social media companies,” reads the House Judiciary Committee statement. “The hearing will also examine the role of competition law in addressing these concerns.”

Reuters reached out to the companies in question with a request for comment. Twitter declined to comment. Facebook on Friday confirmed it would participate but declined further comment. Alphabet, the parent company of Google and YouTube, did not immediately comment.

Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said in a statement that he was pleased the companies will send experts “to answer questions on their content moderation practices and how they can be better stewards of free speech in the United States and abroad.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte speaks at the April session of the committee. (Screenshot via YouTube/House Judiciary Committee Hearings)

Facebook’s head of global policy management Monika Bickert, YouTube global head of public policy and government relations Juniper Downs, and Twitter’s senior strategist Nick Pickles will testify, the committee said.

The committee held a hearing in April on the same topic, which the social media companies did not attend.

Republican representatives on the committee repeatedly suggested at the hearing that the companies are censoring or blocking content from conservatives.

In testimony, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and chair of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said her own political campaign suffered censorship at the hands of Twitter.

“Last October, Twitter blocked my campaign launch video from its ads platform, due to my prolife message. This ban threatened the fundamental freedom to engage in political speech.”

Blackburn cited legal arrangements in place preventing broadcasters from banning political content.

“For example, broadcasters are forbidden under Section 315 of the Communications Act from censoring the ad of a political candidate, even if it has disturbing content or language. Like social media platforms, broadcasters clearly are private entities with their own First Amendment rights, but even so, we recognize that some speech is so important that we must protect its access to an important platform. Twitter reversed its decision in my case, but the bans keep coming. ”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the committee, said in April, “The notion that social media companies are filtering out conservative voices is a hoax, a tired narrative of imagined victimhood.”

Nadler added “Conservative commentary, including conspiracy theories of a conservative bent, regularly rank among the most far-reaching posts on Facebook and elsewhere.”

Lawmakers from both parties agreed tech companies must remove illegal content like fraud, piracy, and sex trafficking, but differed on policy pertaining to removal of other types of objectionable content.

“Free speech, as a value, is endangered even here in America, and is nonexistent in most of the world. We need to recognize that the global reach of these companies creates overwhelming pressure against free speech, and we need to do a much better job counteracting that pressure,” Blackburn said.

Goodlatte said, “While these companies may have legal, economic, and ideological reasons to manage their content like a traditional media outlet, we must nevertheless weigh as a nation whether the standards they apply endanger our free and open society and its culture of freedom of expression.”

David Chavern, president and CEO of News Media Alliance, a nonprofit trade association representing over 2,000 news organizations, noted the difficulty of articulating optimal legislation to provide a tidy solution to a complex problem.

“We offer no easy answers as to the ultimate regulation of these companies. In many ways they present absolutely novel challenges to policymakers. However, with respect to the topic of today’s hearing, a strong first step would be a simple acknowledgment of the immense filtering and decision-making power that both companies possess and exercise today. Neither company is “neutral,” and it’s wrong to pretend they are,” he said.

Chavern expressed his support for a regulatory proposal dubbed the “Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2018.

“From that flows a clear need for both companies to have: (i) enforceable, transparent standards on their algorithmic decision-making, particularly as to fairness and openness; and (ii) systems and policies that reward original, quality information and content provided by trusted news organizations employing professional journalists. With respect to the latter, we wish to express strong support for H.R. 5190, the “Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2018,” recently introduced by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.). We believe this bill would go a long way towards reducing the imbalances in the current system of content distribution.”

Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, argued for a market-based approach.

He said at the hearing, “Concerns about Facebook’s potential slant are best addressed through other measures, starting with transparency and user empowerment. Ultimately, the best check on Facebook’s power today is the threat of a new Facebook disrupting the company’s dominance.”

Reuters contributed to this report.