Pallone: Google, Facebook, Twitter Content Treatment Not 'Neutral'

A powerful congressman says top edge player online content management policies are not "neutral," a charge that comes as the network neutrality debate continues to rage on Capitol Hill, at the FCC, and across the country, with Pallone being one of the strongest champions of net neutrality.

“With a goal of ad clicks or driving page views, these companies’ policies are not neutral; they actively shape content on the web," said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) ranking member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

That came in a request for a meeting with representatives of those edge giants about how they police content on their sites as social media's role in fake news and Russian election meddling becomes grows as a focus of Hill attention. It also is a response to reports of vague, confusing, and inconsistently applied content guidelines.

Usually, ISPs have been targeted for net neutrality criticisms, but increasingly edge providers are at least at the edges of the conversation on Capitol Hill, and Pallone, along with the committee Democrats of which he is the leader, is clearly trying to include tech companies in conversations about their role in net neutrality and the First Amendment going forward.

House Calls Edge Providers, ISPs to Testify

“The influence of the internet over our national dialogue and our lives has skyrocketed over the past decade,” Pallone wrote in a letter to the CEOs of those companies. “At the same time, the number of websites handling this traffic has consolidated to a handful of key platforms. The combination of these trends have led to these few companies taking on a quasi-governmental role policing content, and therefore a large amount of communication, on the internet.”

Pallone suggests that inconsistent application may be tied to the desire to boost page views and ad clicks. He wants a briefing from each, including "how they develop and enforce their policies, how users are aware of these policies, what safeguards are in place to prevent creators of fabricated content from gaming algorithms to promote their stories, and what processes are in place for appeals."

The House Energy & Commerce Committee Republican leadership had called for a Sept. 7 net neutrality hearing with edge providers, but that was postponed after those providers, and ISPs, were not jumping at the invitation.

Back in July, House Energy & Commerce Committee chair Greg Walden (R-Ore.) announced the hearing, "Ground Rules for Internet Ecosystems," and invited edge providers including Facebook, Alphabet (Google), Amazon and Netflix and ISPs including Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Charter. Walden said it was time to hear directly from them.

Pallone and other Dems had offered their own wish list of net neutrality stakeholder witnesses which instead sought input from a diverse set of stakeholders beyond the executive suites.

Energy & Commerce Committee Republicans have been trying to get the ISPs and edge providers together on compromise legislation to clarify the FCC's broadband regulatory authority, but a compromise bill appears a longshot given the current political climate, particularly on something as high-profile and controversial as the Open Internet debate.

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.