Senior Republican leadership gave the public a sneak peek into their priorities and plans for tech legislation in the coming year, and it essentially all revolves around two words: conservative censorship. Yeah, here we go again.
In letters sent to the CEOs of the five largest tech platforms, House Judiciary ranking member Jim Jordan cried afoul of the companies, who he said were “out to get conservatives,” and “colluding” with the Biden administration. Though the Judiciary Committee previously focused on more bipartisan tech issues like antitrust reforms and government access to private data, the new Republican-led committee will add investigations into tech companies commitment to freedom of speech, and the Biden administration’s alleged (but unproven) attempts to collude with tech to censor conservatives to their list of priorities. Jordan’s letters came less one day before former President Donald Trump released his own dramatic, but largely incoherent free speech policy plan.
“Although the full extent of Big Tech’s collusion with the Biden Administration is unknown, there are prominent examples and strong indications of Big Tech censorship following directives or pressure from executive branch entities,” Jordan wrote without providing concrete examples. “The collusion of Big Tech and Big Government to advance censorship undeniably undermines liberty and jeopardizes our country’s First Amendment values and protections.”
Jordan went on to demand tech platforms hand over years worth of documents where employees or contractors communicated with anyone involved with the executive branch concerning the topic of content moderation or content restrictions. The Republican representative also demanded tech firms provide a list of all individuals in their organisations who are responsible, either currently or in the past, for developing their content moderation policies, as well as a list of names of employees who enforce those restrictions or bans. Those lists would include the names of third-party fact-checking organisations or other groups tech companies worked with on content moderation. The companies, Jordan said, have until 5:00 p.m on December 29 to provide the committee with those names and communications.
Jordan and House Republicans’ whining over perceived conservative bias in tech isn’t new. What is new, thanks to the recent midterm elections results, is the fact that those concerns now hold real political power. Though tech firms could largely ignore similar complaints made by Jordan back in September, the GOP’s leading role in the Judiciary Committee means the tech companies will, at the very least, be forced to do a whole hell of a lot of paperwork to assuage the new leadership’s demands. It also means previous priorities under Democratic leadership, like progressive antitrust reform, could risk taking a backseat to censorship questions.
Though he doesn’t directly mention it, Jordan’s letter alludes to several of the findings from a recently released batch of internal documents dubbed, “The Twitter Files.” Republicans and content moderator critics say those documents provided proof that Twitter, and by extension other social media firms, act at the behest of Democrats to silence certain types of content. While most tech observers have say those findings aren’t particularly new, the censorship obsessed wing of the Republican party have clawed onto the documents as an impetus to investigate, and potentially regulate tech firms’s ability to moderate content.
“What we are seeing from representative Jim Jordan is something we have been calling for,” NeChoice Vice President and General Counsel Carl Szabo said during a phone interview with Gizmodo. “A robust investigation into how much our government is pressuring these businesses [tech platforms] to promote or remove content.”
Szabo was quick to caveat that by acknowledging the Trump administration similarly tried to pressure social media companies. NetChoice, which has opposed Congressional Democrats’ attempts at antitrust reforms and just this week sued the state of California to block its recently passed Children’s Online Safety law, counts Meta, Google, Amazon and other tech firms as “associate members.” Though the group describes itself as working to, “make the Internet safe for free enterprise and free expression,” opponents have criticised the organisation for its alleged close ties to industry.
Szabo said NetChoice supports legislation in Congress that would make it illegal for government officials to encourage social media companies to engage in political conduct. Ironically, even though kind words for tech companies are in short supply by Republican lawmakers. Szabo said NetChocie was “very excited” about the types of investigation and legislation likely to occur now that the GOP’s in control.
Progressive tech critics, on the other hand, reacted much differently to Jordan’s plans for the committee.
“Jim Jordan needs to get his talking points straight,” Tech Oversight Project Executive Director Sacha Haworth told Gizmodo. “If he actually wanted to go after Big Tech, he’d save his postage and vote to rein them in. Yet every time antitrust and tech accountability legislation has come through the Judiciary Committee or to the House floor, he hawks and stands with his Big Tech donors.”
Haworth, who has played a prominent role advocating in favour of antitrust reforms and other progressive policy points aimed at reducing large tech firms’ power, wasn’t exactly optimistic about meaningful tech reform stemming from Republican leadership.
“Jordan, Kevin McCarthy, and their dog and pony shows are exactly what we can expect from House Republicans come January next year when they come in power.”
Trump has a plan. Sort of.
BREAKING: President Trump announces free speech policy plan for 2024! pic.twitter.com/66VBvXy7t0
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) December 15, 2022
On Thursday, less than 24 hours after Jordan sent his letter, Trump unveiled his own “free speech plan” which he said he would work to implement if he were to win the 2024 presidential election. That wide reaching bucket list of conservative talking points would, amongst other things, identify and fire federal officials who engaged in perceived censorship, reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to prevent social media platforms from restricting lawful speech, and ban the federal government form working with nonprofits that engage in misinformation or disinformation research. Trump also said he would try to ban federal money from being used to label domestic speech as mis or disinformation.
“The censorship cartel must be dismantled and destroyed and it must happen immediately,” the former president said. It’s unclear if many of these plan are either legal or possible. What is abundantly clear now, is cries of tech censorship in Congress aren’t going anywhere in the coming years.
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