Dept of Justice starts threatened attack on tech companies over supposed stifling of ideas
By: +David Herron; Date: September 5, 2018
The full statement issued today, subsequent to the Intel Committee hearing, has been reported by several outlets as:
We listened to today’s Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Foreign Influence Operations’ Use of Social Media Platforms closely. The Attorney General has convened a meeting with a number of state attorneys general this month to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.
The statement does not explicitly state what the "growing concern" might be. However it echo's statements made by several Conservative political figures, including President Trump, who have begun attacking social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, and who have attacked Google for a supposed stifling of Conservative viewpoints in presenting search results.
In President Trump's attack (Trump rage-Google's himself, rants about conspiracy to silence Conservative voices) he claimed that "Google search results for 'Trump News'" shows only reporting from "Fake News Media" and that "96% of search results for 'Trump News' are from National Left-Wing Media". We know from other statements by Trump that "Fake News Media" includes outlets such as the NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, etc. There is a strong correlation between if the news is good for Donald Trump himself, then it is truthful reporting, and if it is bad for Donald Trump himself, then it is fake news. In other words, what Pres. Trump labels "Fake News" is simply the news he doesn't like.
Detangling Trump's attempt at a logical argument
- The majority of "Trump News" is about the scandals surrounding the Trump Presidency, of course
- This certainly "looks bad" for Pres. Trump, because the actions of his Administration have many extremely alarmed
- Almost all the stories are "BAD" because, again, many are extremely alarmed by what his Administration are doing
- Conservative points of view are being hidden by the tech companies
- Therefore it must be addressed
The issue with that last point is that by virtue of being President, it is possible to direct the Justice Department to launch an investigation or take other action. That possibility is now reality with todays statement from the DoJ.
What triggered Trump's earlier rage-tweet-storm was a segment on the Lou Dobbs program one night. In that segment, some Trump-loving YouTube "stars" known as "Diamond and Silk" appeared on the show claiming that Google is suppressing Conservative news about Trump and other issues. In that segment they called for action to be taken against the tech industry.
That pair gained infamy some time ago when Facebook banned some of their content which Facebook deemed to be "unsafe". They leveraged this into a broad conspiracy theory that tech companies are skewing search results and other algorithms to supposedly lessen the ability of folks to find content written for Conservatives. And, it's known that "Diamond and Silk" have received payments from the Trump Campaign. (According to a report on Alternet)
But is there any substance to these allegations?
Algorithms and Search Results
What they're getting at is the presentation of search results in a search engine, or the presentation of items in a social network news feed.
Obviously search engines and social networks must use an algorithm to select the items to show. This includes determining the presentation order, as well as the items to present.
Obviously search engines and social networks cannot simply present EVERYTHING because there is not room to do so in the user interface. Further there is a long-running competition between search engines and scam-site-operators. The search engines are dilligently working to present good quality results free of scams, and the scam-site-operators are constantly seeking ways around the search engine algorithms.
Search engines routinely tweak their algorithms in order to bury "bad" content to give more room for "good" content.
Anyone who follows "Search Engine Optimization" news knows about the impact of the algorithm changes on organic traffic. Organic traffic is not granola munching sandals wearing hippies, but the traffic arriving on a website from search engines.
So... the selecting and ordering of search results of social network items is performed by algorithms these services must use in order to offer a good service to the customers.
Terms of Service
In some cases Conservative outlets are banned due to Terms of Service violations. For example "Conspiracy Theorist" Alex Jones has been banned from several social media networks because of his obvious abusive behavior. (Pres. Trump slams move to ban hate-speech mongerers like Alex Jones)
A driving force behind the Department of Justice move may well be the Alex Jones ban and other simiar bans.
If a person or organization is routinely behaving badly on a social network, spreading lies, attacking people, using racial stereotyping, encouraging hatred, etc, should the social network take any action?
Most of the social networks have clauses in the Terms of Service banning such behavior. If such a ban is not enforced, then the ban has no teeth, and the folks who would commit such actions would have free rein.
A specific example is whether Pres. Trump should be banned for his abuse of the Terms of Service. In todays hearing, Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois, asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey "Do you consider President Trump's tweets to be abusive or harmful at all?" Trump is constantly attacking folks, calling the "Fake News" outlets enemies of the people, and a bunch of other cyber-bullying activity. According to a C|NET report from that hearing, Dorsey dodged the question answering
"We hold every account to the same standard and consistency of our enforcement. We do have a clause within our terms of services that allows for public interest and understanding of public interest per tweet. We definitely weigh that as we consider enforcement."
In other words, Twitter won't block or remove controversial tweets from "World Leaders" even if that content violated Twitters policies. Why? Public interest.
Freedom of Speech enforcement
Who enforces laws like the 1st Ammendment to the US Constitution? That Ammendment guarantees us all the right to freedom of speech, and is a cornerstone of American society.
TechCrunch's Jonathan Shieber raised a very important observation on that question:
These attorneys general convened to confabulate on the “growing concern” that social media companies are stifling expression and hurting competition. What’s really at issue is a conservative canard and talking point that tries to make a case that private companies have a First Amendment obligation to allow any kind of speech on their platforms.
The simple fact is that they do not. Let me repeat that. They simply do not.
He went on to point out the obvious... It is Governments who must enforce freedom of speech, and private companies are not the Government. Private companies are not under an obligation to enforce such laws.
Further, a private company acting as a law enforcement agency would have a difficulty of choosing which set of laws to enforce. Which country laws would Twitter enforce? These services operate across the world, after all, so this is a very practical question.
My understanding is that "Freedom of the Press" works for those who Own the Press.
Alex Jones does not own Twitter or Facebook or Google. Such companies are not obligated to enforce laws. Instead they are business offering a service, they have customers to keep happy, and laws to respect.
If Alex Jones wants complete freedom to say what he wishes - he has his own website with which to state his opinion all he wants. That website is his "Press", and he is free to publish anything he likes through that Press.
But he cannot expect YouTube or Twitter or whatever to be required to publish his material. All the social networks have a long history of banning folks over a variety of reasons from hate speech to flagrant scammery. There is no obligation to carry all content produced by all the folks who have things to say.
There are scammers, folks who publish actual fake news, folks who are pushing racial stereotypes to stir up hatred, and on and on and on. All those sources of "content" can be very harmful to society.
There is a reason it is illegal to shout "FIRE" in a crowded theater when there's no fire. Folks have died in fear-stoked stampedes.
There are limits to freedom of speech that governments routinely enforce.