Sen. Cruz: Big Tech Needs to Prove No Bias or Lose Sec. 230

Google got hammered in the Senate Constitution Subcommittee Tuesday (July 16).

It should have come as no surprise since the title of the hearing was “Google and Censorship Through Search Engines," one of at least three hearings targeting edge providers Tuesday, and was presided over by chairman Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has consistently alleged that Google (including YouTube), and other edge providers, are biased against conservatives, including by characterizing their content as hate speech. 

Cruz said that one thing was certain: Congress never intended big tech companies to control speech using Sec. 230 of the Communications Act, which gives tech companies liability protection from third-party content. 

Sen. Ted Cruz

Sen. Ted Cruz

He said Americans are now subject to overt censorship and covert manipulation, so it is time to re-think that Sec. 230 liability carve-out. He said unless Big Tech can provide "clear and compelling evidence" that it is not playing "Big Brother" with its vast powers, there is no reason they should have a special Sec. 230 subsidy. 

He said the heart of the problem was lack of transparency and that Big Tech can no longer "hide behind its algorithms."

Ranking member Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) echoed her longstanding criticism that there was no evidence of conservative bias and that such claims were baseless. She said given that only three months the subcommittee held a hearing on allegations of anticonservative bias, where Republicans claimed a vast conspiracy to silence conservative voice, it felt like Groundhog Day. 

Hirono said study after study have debunked the claims, finding no evidence that Google biases results against conservatives. But, she said, edge provider fears of being tarred as biased has instead made tech companies hesitant to deal with racist and harassing content.

Karan Bhatia, VP of government affairs and public policy for Google, was definitive about how it operates. "[L]et me be clear: Google is not politically biased," she testified. "Indeed, we go to extraordinary lengths to build our products and enforce our policies in an analytically objective, apolitical way.... At any particular moment, in response to any particular search, some of that information may be unsatisfying to one group or another. Our job — which we take very seriously — is to deliver to users the most relevant and authoritative information out there. And studies have shown that we do just that."

But Hirono had what she called some real problems with Big Tech. One of those is the fact that despite repeated efforts by her father, Andy, to have them removed, videos of the murder of WDBJ Roanoke reporter Allison Parker and her colleague Adam Ward remain available on YouTube almost four years after the tragedy.  

She pointed out to Bhatia that Andy Parker had not only sent letters to Google but met with the company and "begged" that the videos come down. She asked why a father should have to monitor and flag to have video of his daughter's murder taken down. 

Bhatia expressed his "deepest sympathy" for what Parker had gone through, though it was not clear whether he meant the underlying tragedy or the attempt to get it off YouTube. He conceded they had engaged with Parker over time, but that there were different sets of video. He said one set was hoax videos asserting the murder hadn't happened. He said those have been taken down (Andy Parker, who was a witness on the committee's second panel, could be seen shaking his head vigorously in the background as Bhatia talked. Bhatia said the second set are a variety of videos that could include news footage and, there, there is the question of copyright and whether some of the videos are owned by Parker. But where there are news videos, YouTube would generally tend to leave them up even if they are disturbing, perhaps labeling consistent with its policies.

When asked by Hirono, he said they had taken down the videos they could legally take down. 

Asked by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) about President Trump's "treason" comment related to Peter Thiel's allegation about the company, Bhatia said there had been no infiltration of the company by China intelligence. Blumenthal appeared satisfied. 

But Blumenthal said the hourglass had run out on Big Tech on issues like antitrust and privacy and hoped Google was thinking about profound change, which would be necessary.

He also suggested it might have run  out on the overly broad Sec. 230.

During his testimony before the committee, Andy Parker said the pain of his daughter's death was amplified by the first person video the killer posted on YouTube. Parker has been advocating for gun control, and said that people who say the "alleged" murder was just a conspiracy to get their guns, have posted portions of that video online as part of "hate-filled" diatribes aimed at his family and Allison's former boyfriend.

He said he implored Google to take down the video and conspiratorial content and their response was that he should flag the content. "They wanted me to watch my daughter's murder and explain to a robot why it should be removed." 

He said he will never look at the video "for obvious reasons." 

Parker said that while they profess a desire to help, "in reality they do nothing." 

Parker said on May 1 he had a video conference with Google about specific content and attempts to have it removed, Google said they were "really trying." Then silence until the morning of the hearing, when he said he finally got an email from Google. Parker said that thanks to Sec. 230 Google has no incentive to take the harassing content down.

He said Congress should scrap the section and hold Google responsible for the conspiratorial content it allows on the platform. 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.