The CEOs of tech giants Facebook, Twitter and Google faced a grilling in Congress Thursday as lawmakers tried to draw them into acknowledging their companies’ roles in fueling the January insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and rising COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.
In a hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, lawmakers pounded Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg; Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, which owns YouTube; and Twitter chief Jack Dorsey over their content policies, use of consumers’ data and children’s media use.
Republicans raised long-running conservative grievances, unproven, that the platforms are biased against conservative viewpoints and censor material based on political or religious viewpoints.
There is increasing support in Congress for legislation to rein in Big Tech companies.
“The time for self-regulation is over. It’s time we legislate to hold you accountable,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., the committee’s chairman.
That legislative momentum, plus the social environment of political polarization, hate speech and violence against minorities, was reflected in panel members’ impatience as they questioned the three executives. Several lawmakers demanded yes-or-no answers and repeatedly cut the executives off.
“We always feel some sense of responsibility,” Pichai said. Zuckerberg used the word “nuanced” several times to insist that the issues can’t be boiled down. “Any system can make mistakes” in moderating harmful material, he said.
Shortly after the hearing began, it became clear that most of the lawmakers had already made up their minds that the big technology companies need to be regulated more rigorously to rein in their sway over what people read and watch online.
In a round of questioning that served as both political theater and a public flogging, lawmakers called out the CEOs for creating platforms that enabled the spread of damaging misinformation about last year’s U.S. presidential election and the current COVID-19 vaccine, all in a relentless pursuit of profit and higher stock prices.
Lawmakers also blamed the companies’ services for poisoning the minds of children and inciting the deadly insurrection at the Capitol, as well as contributing to the more recent mass murders in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado.
The three CEOs staunchly defended their companies’ efforts to weed out the increasingly toxic content posted and circulated on services used by billions of people, while noting their efforts to balance freedom of speech.
“I don’t think we should be the arbiters of truth and I don’t think the government should be either,” Dorsey said.
Democrats are laying responsibility on the social media platforms for disseminating false information on the November election and the “Stop the Steal” voting fraud claims fueled by former President Donald Trump, which led to the deadly attack on the Capitol. Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, told the CEOs that the riot “started and was nourished on your platforms.”
Support is building for Congress to impose new curbs on legal protections regarding speech posted on their platforms. Both Republicans and Democrats — including President Joe Biden as a candidate — have called for stripping away some of the protections under so-called Section 230 of a 25-year-old telecommunications law that shields internet companies from liability for what users post.
The tech CEOs defended the legal shield under Section 230, saying it has helped make the internet the forum of free expression that it is today. Zuckerberg, however, again urged the lawmakers to update that law to ensure it’s working as intended. He added a specific suggestion: Congress could require internet platforms to gain legal protection only by proving that their systems for identifying illegal content are up to snuff.
Trump enjoyed special treatment on Facebook and Twitter until January, despite spreading misinformation, pushing false claims of voting fraud, and promulgating hate. Facebook banned Trump indefinitely a day after rioters egged on by Trump swarmed the Capitol. Twitter soon followed, permanently disabling Trump’s favored bullhorn.
Facebook hasn’t yet decided whether it will banish the former president permanently. The company punted that decision to its quasi-independent Oversight Board — sort of a Supreme Court of Facebook enforcement — which is expected to rule on the matter next month.
Researchers say there’s no evidence that the social media giants are biased against conservative news, posts or other material, or that they favor one side of political debate over another.
Democrats, meanwhile, are largely focused on hate speech and incitement that can spawn real-world violence. An outside report issued this week found that Facebook has allowed groups — many tied to QAnon, boogaloo and militia movements — to extol violence during the 2020 election and in the weeks leading up to the deadly riots on the Capitol.
With the tone and tenor of Thursday’s hearing set early in the hearing, many internet and Twitter users seemed more interested in Dorsey’s fresh buzz cut and trimmed bread. His newly groomed appearance captured immediate attention because it was a stark contrast to his scraggly beard that drew comparisons to Rasputin in last year’s remote appearances before Congress.
Another point of curiosity: a mysterious clock in Dorsey’s kitchen that displayed sets of figures that seemed to be randomly changing in a way that made it clear it had nothing to do with the time of day. The tech blog Gizmodo eventually revealed the device was a “BlockClock” that shows the latest prices of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum.
WASHINGTON (AP) — By MARCY GORDON and BARBARA ORTUTAY
Lawmakers call YouTube Kids a ‘wasteland of vapid’ content
A House subcommittee is investigating YouTube Kids, saying the Google-owned video service feeds children inappropriate material in “a wasteland of vapid, consumerist content” so it can serve them ads.
The inquiry comes despite Google agreeing to pay $170 million in 2019 to settle allegations that YouTube collected personal data on children without their parents’ consent.
In a letter sent Tuesday to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, the U.S. House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on economic and consumer policy said YouTube does not do enough to protect kids from material that could harm them. Instead it relies on artificial intelligence and creators’ self-regulation to decide what videos make it on to the platform, according to the letter from the committee’s chairman, Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi.
And despite changes in the wake of the 2019 settlement, the letter notes, YouTube Kids still shows ads to children. But instead of basing it on kids’ online activity, it now targets it based on the videos they are watching.
YouTube said it has sought to provide kids and families with protections and controls enabling them to view age-appropriate content. It also emphasized that the 2019 settlement was over the regular YouTube platform, not the kids version.
“We’ve made significant investments in the YouTube Kids app to make it safer and to serve more educational and enriching content for kids, based on principles developed with experts and parents,” the company said.
The congressional investigation comes a year into the pandemic that has shuttered schools and left parents who are working from home increasingly reliant on services such as YouTube to keep kids occupied. This has led to a rethinking of “screen time” rules and guilt over the amount of time kids spend in front of screens, with some experts recommending that parents focus on quality, not quantity.
But lawmakers say YouTube Kids is anything but quality.
“YouTube Kids spends no time or effort determining the appropriateness of content before it becomes available for children to watch,” the letter says. “YouTube Kids allows content creators to self-regulate. YouTube only asks that they consider factors including the subject matter of the video, whether the video has an emphasis on kids characters, themes, toys or games, and more.”
Kids under 13 are protected by a 1998 federal law that requires parental consent before companies can collect and share their personal information.
Under the 2019 settlement, Google agreed to work with video creators to label material aimed at kids. It said it would limit data collection when users view such videos, regardless of their age.
But lawmakers say even after the settlement, YouTube Kids, which launched in 2015, continued to exploit loopholes and advertise to children. While it does not target ads based on viewer interests the way the main YouTube service does, it tracks information about what kids are watching in order to recommend videos. It also collects personally identifying device information.
There are also other, sneaky ways ads are reaching children. A “high volume” of kids’ videos, the letter says, smuggle hidden marketing and advertising with product placements by “children’s influencers,” who are often children themselves.
“YouTube does not appear to be trying to prevent such problematic marketing,” the letter says. The House research team found that only 4% of videos it looked at had a “high educational value” offering developmentally appropriate material.
The kids app has helped turn YouTube into an increasingly more attractive outlet for the advertising sales that generate most of the profits for Google and its corporate parent, Alphabet, which is based in Mountain View, California.
YouTube brought in nearly $20 billion in ad revenue last year, more than doubling from its total just three years ago. The video site now accounts for about 13% of Google’s total ad sales, up from slightly more than 8% in 2017.
The House subcommittee is recommending YouTube turn off advertisements completely for kids aged 7 and under. It also asks that it give parents the ability to turn off the “autoplay” feature, which is not currently possible (though parents are able to set a timer to limit their kids’ video watching).
The lawmakers are asking YouTube to provide them with information on YouTube Kids’ top videos, channels and revenue information, as well as average time spent and number of videos watched, per user, among other information.
By BARBARA ORTUTAY.
Betting sites offer software blocks for compulsive gamblers
Some sports betting companies are offering tools that allow compulsive gamblers to block themselves from most online sites.
Unibet last week announced it was making software from U.K.-based Gamban available to customers in the U.S. The tools allow customers to in effect ban themselves from gambling sites across multiple devices.
On Wednesday, FanDuel did so, as well. The software blocks thousands of licensed and unlicensed gambling sites and is constantly updated to add new ones as they appear.
“Educating customers about the importance of gambling responsibly and within limits is a business imperative and ethically the right thing to do,” said Carolyn Renzin, chief risk and compliance officer with FanDuel Group. “Offering Gamban’s software to those customers signaling they need help adds another layer of protection for our customers, our program, and to the industry.”
“This is a massive moment for the industry and one we’ve been pushing to achieve since the launch of Gamban,” added Jack Symons, Gamban’s co-founder. “As the largest real-money gaming provider in the United States, FanDuel Group is making a statement of intent and throwing down the gauntlet to operators across the industry to offer self-exclusion support for their vulnerable customers.”
Most licensed sports betting and online casino companies already offer ways for compulsive gamblers to either pause or halt their behavior, including “cool-down” periods in which customers can have their accounts suspended for a length of time.
And states including New Jersey offer state-administered self-exclusion lists where gamblers can prohibit themselves from gambling for differing periods, or permanently. While they are on the list, casinos and sports books cannot accept bets from them or send them marketing materials enticing them to gamble.
Unibet’s parent company, Kindred Group said last week that its provision of blocking software to its customers is “an important step for the industry.”
Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, praised the companies’ moves.
“We strongly support the ability of gamblers to self-exclude through both the operator and on their own personal devices,” he said. “Self-exclusion is one part of what should be a comprehensive network of problem gambling prevention, education, treatment, enforcement, research and recovery services in every state.”
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — By WAYNE PARRY
Law in France forces social media platforms to remove online hate speech
The most recent law passed in France has continued to fuel the controversial debate of ‘free speech or censorship?’
The law has put more pressure on tech platforms to remove hateful comments considered “manifestly illicit” – which might be based on religion, race, gender, disability or sexual orientation and sexual harassment – within 24 hours after they are flagged by users. Content that engages in terrorism or child pornography must be removed within one hour of being flagged.
The National Assembly – who passed the new legislation – has given platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat strict deadlines to remove content. If the companies fail to cooperate, they can face fines of up to 4% of their global revenue.
The law aims to “induce responsibility” from the creators of online platforms who argue “that the tool they themselves have created is uncontrollable,” Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet told lawmakers on Wednesday.
The law also sets up a prosecutor specialized in digital content and a government unit to continually observe online hate speech. “People will think twice before crossing the red line if they know that there is a high likelihood that they will be held to account,” Belloubet said.
The matter of social media censorship is a very controversial one. Whilst indeed, harmful content and one that encourages criminal activity or discrimination should be removed to protect users, it calls into question speech in other contexts when discussion comprises of a personal opinion that may or may not offend others but will be removed because it does not conform to one set of guidelines. Some might argue that personal opinion represents our civil liberties and when censored – impinges upon individual freedom of expression and curbs the right to access free flowing information.
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