Twitter and Facebook to Face Congressional & Regulatory Scrutiny After Platforms Blocked New York Post’s Reports on Hunter Biden
Should social media companies' liability protections be reformed?
by Causes | 10.19.20
What’s the story?
- The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony this month from the CEOs of three of America’s largest tech companies regarding their content policies after Twitter and Facebook reduced the distribution of the New York Post’s reporting about Hunter Biden’s alleged laptop and emails.
- The committee is set to vote Thursday on subpoenas compelling testimony from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Friday, October 23rd, unless a compromise is reached without a subpoena. Dorsey, Zuckerberg, and Alphabet (Google) CEO Sundar Pichai are already scheduled to appear before the committee on Wednesday, October 28th for a hearing on the Section 230 liability protections their platforms enjoy.
- Twitter and Facebook’s suppression of the Post’s Hunter Biden reports has added fuel to the debate in Congress over that legal immunity extended to social media platforms, and prompted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to announce it will move forward with a rule to clarify the extent of those immunities. The Republican National Committee also requested that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) look into whether the platforms actions constitute an illegal, in-kind corporate campaign contribution to the Biden campaign.
- The Post’s report contains emails which purport to show that Hunter Biden arranged for a Ukrainian businessman to meet his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, and that he attempted to negotiate an equity stake in a Chinese company.
- The Biden campaign said it has no record of a formal meeting on official schedules, but told Politico it hasn’t ruled out that a cursory, informal encounter occurred. Neither the campaign nor Hunter Biden have commented on whether the laptop belongs to him. Former Vice President Joe Biden was asked by a CBS reporter on Friday night about the Post’s story, and replied:
“I know you’d ask it. I have no response. It’s another smear campaign. Right up your alley. Those are the questions you always ask.”
What did Twitter & Facebook do?
- After the Post’s first Hunter Biden article was published on Wednesday, October 14th, Twitter blocked some users from sharing or retweeting the article and suspended several prominent accounts, including those of the New York Post itself, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and the Trump campaign. For its part, Facebook reduced the circulation of the post on its platform while outside fact-checking reviewed the article.
- Critics pointed out that Twitter’s stated policy of blocking content that includes materials obtained without authorization would’ve precluded publication of journalism related to the Pentagon Papers, Edward Snowden’s documents, and other sensitive items obtained through whistleblowers. Additionally, opponents of the decision contend that the social media giants were engaged in selective censorship to protect former Vice President Joe Biden from critical coverage, whereas the publication of unauthorized content formed the basis of other recent reports criticizing President Donald Trump.
- Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said his company’s response “was not great” and said “blocking URL sharing via tweet or DM with zero context as to why we’re blocking: unacceptable.” Twitter revised its policy to allow content such as the Post’s article to be shared freely with contextual labels unless it is shared directly by hackers.
- Twitter has also reactivated several suspended accounts, although the New York Post’s Twitter account apparently remains under suspension as of Monday, October 19th.
What immunity do such platforms have?
- Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states that, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
- In essence, it means that platforms can’t be punished for content published by an end user of the platform. Critics have accused social media platforms of abusing that status by censoring or suppressing viewpoints their employees disagree with, thereby acting as a publisher rather than a neutral platform deserving of protections under Section 230.
- While there is some bipartisan support in Congress for reforming Section 230, the Trump administration has pushed hard for it to be revamped. President Donald Trump issued an executive order that seeks to prohibit social media censorship, and the Dept. of Justice (DOJ) called for Congress to revise the legal protections for social media companies.
- Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Thursday announced that the FCC will move forward with a rulemaking to clarify the meaning of Section 230, noting that, “Many advance an overly broad interpretation that in some cases shields social media companies from consumer protection laws in a way that has no basis in the text of Section 230.” He added:
“Throughout my tenure at the Federal Communications Commission, I have a favored regulatory parity, transparency, and free expression. Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech. But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: iStock.com / DKart)
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