MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Google Hearings Force the Question: Do We Really Want 'Regulation by Federal and State Governments' of 'Today's Disruptive Technologies'?

Obama Defense Secretary Ash Carter wants to bring back the Cold War's Office of Technology Assessment. Why?

Xinhua/Sipa USA/NewscomXinhua/Sipa USA/NewscomThe most important thing about today's appearance before Congress by Google CEO Sundar Pichai is the simple fact that it took place at all.

It's just one more sign that the tech sector may not only be resigned to federal regulation, but possibly excited by the opportunity to help write the rules that will govern their part of the economy. In his prepared testimony, Pichai took pains to "recognize the important role of governments, including this Committee, in setting rules for the development and use of technology." That's as anodyne a statement as possible, but in the given political context, during which both Republicans and Democrats seem to be looking for scapegoats to explain unexpected losses in 2016 and 2018, it's hard not to read it almost as a commitment to cooperate. On every level—political, economic, intellectual—it seems as if a consensus is building that whatever is described by vague terms such as "social media," "the tech sector," "the gig economy," or whatever needs to be under some sort of control. Apple's Tim Cook, the head of the world's biggest company, has declared "the free market is not working" and that regulating "tech" is "inevitable." Ash Carter, President Obama's former defense secretary, is calling for the resurrection of the Office of Technology Assessment, a Cold War relic that would, he vows, route around partisan gridlock to assess and protect us all from the "public impact of today's disruptive technologies" (more on that terrible idea in a moment).

Earlier this year, of course, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before the Senate and said that the question wasn't whether social media should be regulated but how it should be brought to heel (he was, he said, happy to help write those rules). Earlier this fall, Google declined to send a representative when tech heavyweights Facebook (represented by COO Sheryl Sandberg) and Twitter (represented by CEO Jack Dorsey) were called to talk to the Senate Intelligence Committee about all things related to the Internet, Russian bots, trolling, shadow-banning, fake news, you name it.

In the wake of bad publicity for not showing up, Pichai did fly to Washington later in September and made the rounds, promising to appear at today's hearing, which was titled "Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and Its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices" and held by the House Judiciary Committee.

As expected (and as my colleague Robby Soave has already reported), the hearing provided many examples of members displaying general ignorance of computer-related technology. But it also included non-veiled threats of political reprisals, such as when Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas) told Pichai that he was tired of bias when it comes to searching, navigating, and evaluating information found on the internet.

My problem is when the government gives its immunity from lawsuits over to a private corporation [and] the head of that corporation doesn't even realize that there is political bias run amok in his company....for you to come in here and say "There is no political bias in Google" tells us you either are being dishonest, I don't want to think that, or you don't have a clue how politically biased Google is."

Gohmert cited Google's use of the intellectually odious Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as a "trusted flagger" of dubious content at YouTube and recounted a 2012 gun attack on the Family Research Center by a shooter inflamed by the SPLC's characterization of the Christian organization as a hate group. He also raised the SPLC's multi-million payout to Quilliam, an anti-Muslim extremist group it incorrectly identified as a pro-jihadist organization, as a sign of "bias run amok." Even as he was denouncing Google for partnering with a group that slimed a Muslim organization, Gohmert felt a need to say that "Christianity is really more based on love than about any other religion in history. God so loved the world, He sent His Son, His Son so loved the world, He gave His life."

Gohmert was essentially raising the specter of eroding Section 230, the section of the Communications Decency Act that protects websites and platforms from various forms of legal liability for what users do or say on a given site or service, unless conservatives and Republicans were given what he considers a fairer shake on the various platforms operated by Google.

As Elizabeth Nolan Brown has written, Section 230 is "the law that lets most of the U.S. internet today exist as it does":

Basically, that's by declaring that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service" should be treated as the speaker of content created by others when it comes to assessing certain legal liabilities....

You can be a web publication with an explicitly ideological slant, a social platform with idiosyncratic policies on permitted speech, or a private messageboard for anarchist Amish redheads to discuss the Cubs and Section 230 doesn't care. All that matters, for the most part, is whether a digital platform or service created whatever content is in question....

The law explicitly states that a service's efforts to filter out illegal or undesirable content do not open it to liability. "Any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected," reads 230(c)(2).

Gohmert's comments, which parallel similar ones made by other conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), are troubling because they essentially recast private platforms as the equivalent of government-regulated broadcast networks. As Cruz put it in a Senate debate with challenger Beto O'Rourke,

"Right now, big tech enjoys an immunity from liability on the assumption they would be neutral and fair," the senator said. "If they're not going to be neutral and fair, if they're going to be biased, we should repeal the immunity from liability so they should be liable like the rest of us."

There is little-to-no solid evidence that platforms such as Facebook are in fact screwing over people espousing political viewpoints at odds with the owners or workers there (indeed, the engagement rates for Donald Trump's Facebook posts grew and those Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren declined during the period Cruz zeroed in on). But conservatives and Republicans are convinced that they are being discriminated against, even as liberals and Democrats are convinced that "big tech" was overrun by Russian agents who stole the 2016 presidential election from Hillary Clinton.

Which brings me back to reasons to believe that a consensus is building among Republicans and Democrats that "social media" or the "the tech sector" or whatever you want to call it "needs" to be regulated. Each side has scalps it wants to claim, and Donald Trump is nothing if not a dealmaker. If Ted Cruz can boost the reach of pro-Trump duo Diamond & Silk, he's all in. If disgruntled and mistaken Hillary fans can walk away saying that social media will never again ruin their day, so be it.

And the centrists will be able to justify it all with soothing appeals to technocratic impartiality, like the one that former Defense Secretary Ash Carter made recently in the pages of Politico. In anticipation of today's hearing and with the spring's Facebook hearings in mind, Carter (who worked for a Democrat but started out with a Republican!), wrote

Members seemed unbriefed on even rudimentary issues—"[H]ow do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?" one senator asked—while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg seemed not to understand the gravity of his company's public responsibilities. This was a gridlock of understanding, not partisanship, and it meant a historic opportunity was missed.

Imagine a different outcome where several options mixing self-regulation by companies like Facebook and informed regulation by federal and state governments were analyzed, debated and prepared for a vote. Imagine, too, that such bipartisan insight came directly from a body under congressional control, rather than lobbying firms, advocacy groups and think tanks, which often peddle tendentious recommendations....

Carter's solution is to revive the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which lasted from 1972 to 1995. He rhapsodizes:

At one point, I worked with the makers of the Goodyear Blimp on the design of giant airships floating randomly over the United States so that they couldn't be targeted by the Soviets—surely a crowd pleaser!

The point is that we were an expert staff that provided purely technical analysis. We looked at options, not answers. Other teams worked on a broad range of issues, including telecommunications, health and safety, agriculture and manufacturing. Though scientifically independent, OTA was no rogue agency. It worked directly for, and was supervised by, a bipartisan and bicameral group of senators and members; OTA was truly congressional.

You can read his whole case for restoring the OTA here. I find it unconvincing and risible, not because "purely technical analysis" is a chimera, or because Congress shouldn't be better informed on all the things it shouldn't be trying to regulate, or because there are times when non-partisanship (un-partisanship?) isn't appealing. It's like Sundar Pichai's presence in Washington: The most important thing is that it exists at all. It's a marker that one era is ending and another beginning, one that will almost certainly take regulation of the tech sector and managed capitalism for granted.

If you're old enough to remember the fight over the Communications Decency Act, which passed Congress overwhelmingly and was happily signed into law by President Bill Clinton before being almost completely slapped down by the Supreme Court as terrible nonsense, you might remember a time when an era of unprecedented freedom, expression, and experimentation still all lay in front of us. Nobody knew how any of this stuff would work out, but we'd figure it out as we went along, right?

Time was when the dominant strain of thought was to declare independence in cyberspace (remember that phrase?) and to state bluntly, "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel...You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather." Nowadays, the giants of cyberspace are weary, battered by fickle publics and volatile markets, and are as likely as not to welcome regulation and control as long as it comes with guaranteed market share.

Photo Credit: Xinhua/Sipa USA/Newscom

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Don't look at me!||

    Everyone involved are terrible people with no concern for anyone but themselves.

  • IceTrey||

    Two things, first removing their Section 230 protection would make them more like a newspaper not a broadcaster and second they absolutely are in fact screwing over people espousing political viewpoints at odds with the owners or workers there. Alex Jones was totally deplatformed. Milo deplatformed. Sargon of Akkad was kicked off of Patreon for god's sake! Patreon!

  • JesseAz||

    How about just removing favored protections they have.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    You mean Section 230?
    On what basis?

  • JesseAz||

    Jeff dear. I'm done trying to teach to you or discuss anything with you. You're too fucking stupid.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    Translation: You don't have an argument and just call people names.

  • JesseAz||

    No. I think you're an ignorant and dishonest piece of shit. You completely exposed your lie of believing in the NAP when you thought it was fine to commit economic terrorism on those who disagree with you. I think you're a fucking idiot. You have the brain capacity if a gold fish and don't know anything past the article you just read. Any analysis deeper than facial analysis is too difficult for you. Not sure how much clearer I can be you're a fucking idiot.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    Liar. I never endorsed "economic terrorism". WTF does that even mean? Where do you get this nonsense?

  • MJBinAL||

    "a fucking idiot"

    seems to cover you pretty well, Jeff.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    And you still don't have an argument and you are still calling people names.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Why you would argue with the troll sometimes know as chemjeff....

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    Oh, LC1789. Never change.

  • DenverJ||

    You're both idiots.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Speaking of trolls....

  • Otis B. Driftwood||

    Dude, back up your fucking argument. Calling the guy names instead of defending your argument makes you look inept. This is Reason, not Twitter.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Jeffie never backs up his arguments. Section 230 has been explained to him multiple times and ever time he pretends like he's never heard the explanation before.

    Yes, this is reason which isn't really any better than twitter.

  • MJBinAL||

    This, is the issue ...

    "Section 230 has been explained to him multiple times and ever time he pretends like he's never heard the explanation before."

    It is not that the argument needs backed up, it is that Jeff acts like he can't remember yesterday. Maybe he can't, but either way it makes engaging with him seriously a waste of time.

  • Rich||

    "Right now, big tech enjoys an immunity from liability on the assumption they would be neutral and fair," the senator said. "If they're not going to be neutral and fair, if they're going to be biased, we should repeal the immunity from liability so they should be liable like the rest of us."

    "Indeed, I know several senators who have been sued, fined, and imprisoned because of their biased and unfair actions."

  • JesseAz||

    Federal and state agencies get sued quite often for unequal application of policies, vague policies, or biased application of policies. Why should tech companies be exempt? They have violated the intention of 230 with their vague rules and applications of said rules. They often violate their written policies. They should be open to civil remedies just like the colleges and government agencies who do likewise.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    They have violated the intention of 230

    They have?

    http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/47/230

    I don't see anything there about "being neutral" in the stated intentions of Congress.

  • Eddy||

    It's in the penumbras.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    I guess so! Maybe the Constitutional justification for abortion and gun control is in there as well!

  • MJBinAL||

    From U.S. Code 230

    (c) Protection for "Good Samaritan" blocking and screening of offensive material
    (1) Treatment of publisher or speaker
    No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

    This exemption is provided only for ""Good Samaritan" blocking and screening of offensive material". This exemption allows Google, Twitter .. etc. to act as PRINTERS rather than PUBLISHERS and avoid the liabilities incurred by publishers, including but not limited to libel and slander.

    This means that they ARE violating the intend of 230 when they block or screen material that is not offensive. And in legal use offensive, does not mean "I disagree with it" rather it means things like pornography.

    So it says more than they must be neutral, it says that they must not block or screen AT ALL, except for offensive material ... such as pornography.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    And by the way:

    They often violate their written policies. They should be open to civil remedies just like the colleges and government agencies who do likewise.

    If a company violates its own rules, they are of course civilly liable for that and Section 230 doesn't say anything about that, one way or another. Nothing is stopping you from suing Google or anyone else for any perceived wrong you have suffered at their hands by them breaking their own rules.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    It's just one more sign that the tech sector may not only be resigned to federal regulation, but possibly excited by the opportunity to help write the rules that will govern their part of the economy.

    Of course they are excited, Nick. This is how it always works. Small innovative company grows to a massive bloated corporation that loses the ability to accurately measure price signals due to too many internal transaction and stops being innovative due to the people on top becoming entrenched in their ways and protective of their position.

    As a result, small innovative new entrants into the market become a big threat. Thus, massive bloated corporation "reluctantly agrees" to necessary regulations, which they will even offer to help write. Lo and behold, the new regulations favor economies of scale and set up all sorts of barriers to entry into the market for new small competitors. Everyone is happy.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    Yup. Rent seeking in action!

    Here is the opportunity for those disappointed in the services that Google et al. offer to capture the market niche that they left unserved.

  • JesseAz||

    It's like you didn't understand the argument to our responded to at all. Shocker.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    the argument to our responded to at all

    what?

  • LarryA||

    excited by the opportunity to help write the rules

    Unfortunately the only people who could write worse rules than the big tech companies are the Congressfolks who "provided many examples of members displaying general ignorance of computer-related technology."

    Rock:Hardplace.

  • Eddy||

    Rock Hardplace was my nickname in college.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Seminary school?

  • LarryA||

    Do We Really Want 'Regulation by Federal and State Governments'

    No.

  • Eddy||

    And they looked from the feds to the the Internet companies, and from the Internet companies to the feds, and they could no longer tell which was which.

  • Jerryskids||

    The dilemmas posed by today's disruptive technological change won't resolve themselves. From social media platforms like Facebook to artificial intelligence, big data, cybersecurity and quantum computing, the digital revolution desperately needs clear-eyed policy safeguards.

    What would Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Philo T. Farnsworth have done without the Office of Technology Assessment? You need experts and Top Men to direct progress, otherwise every asshole with a nickel gets a vote on what the market produces and where would we be then?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Some corporations do this and become cronies of the state when they are at their pinnacle.

    They cant go up, so they stupidily go downward in the name of good intentions.

    This is why bailouts are so morally reprehensible. Companies like GE and Google deserve their downward spiral. They focus not on being innovative but on how to control.

    Die Google. Die.

  • Eddy||

    "Of course, that's simply German for 'The, Google, The.'"

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Wunderbah Eddy, wunderbah.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Wunderbar....fucking reason...

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    One of the very few things I can find common cause with Tucker Carlson on, is his concern about the massive amount of data that tech companies have about everyone, and what a bad actor could potentially do with all that data. I think it's almost a certainty that Google/Facebook/Apple/etc. know more about every American than the combined total of every law enforcement and tax collection agency in the country, I don't really have a concrete concern, just a general unease about it, so I am not sure what the appropriate course of action should be (if any) from a regulatory point of view. However, I would not be entirely opposed to some sort of 'statute of limitations' for all that data that is in private hands. If Amazon wants to track how often I buy stuff on the Internet, fine, but there is no need for Amazon to keep a record of my shopping habits in perpetuity.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    You have nothing to worry about if you aren't doing anything wrong. Plus, Zuckerberg just looks so trustworthy, like the friendly neighborhood dog walker.

  • DenverJ||

    You know, we could just blow the whole thing up. Burn it all to the ground. Probably wouldn't help anything, but maybe we could all just get it out of our system.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Another anarchy-land asshole.

  • IceTrey||

    It's only when you've lost everything that your free to do anything.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Gillespie pieces force the question: does anyone think he isn't a progressive?

  • ||

    My libertarian bent doesn't like regulation. I would be tempted to support removing their immunity. But it would be ruinous to thousands of non-political non-social forums. For example, I help administer one that deals strictly in physics. We have no resources, no budget to hire a lawyer to defend against civil suits. It would be a death knell.

    How about instead mandating transparency instead of mandating civil liability? If the search algorithms and censoring decisions were fully transparent, public pressure would presumably prevent abuse. I think that the small sites and big ones alike could survive transparency even if they hate giving up their precious business trade secrets.

    Actually, I think mainstream press could survive transparency also. No more editorial decisions or hiring decisions in the dark. No more anonymous sources.

  • vek||

    "There is little-to-no solid evidence that platforms such as Facebook are in fact screwing over people espousing political viewpoints at odds with the owners or workers there "

    LOLOLOLOL

    You're not friggin' serious are you? People have literally done scientific analysis of the bias in search results, shadow banning, and other bullshit... Not to mention the obvious anecdotal info that is ENDLESS. The right is being driven off these platforms at an insane pace, and it is not a good thing.

    Don't worry Nick, they're coming for cucks like you too. Anybody who does not lick the boots on 100% of issues is LITERALLY HITLER and will not be tolerated. A cuck like you who kisses the ring in a mere 95% of instances will be destroyed just the same as an actual neo Nazi skin head.

  • ||

    essentially started three weeks past and that i makes $385 benefit $135 to $a hundred and fifty consistently simply by working at the internet from domestic. I made ina long term! "a great deal obliged to you for giving American explicit this remarkable opportunity to earn more money from domestic. This in addition coins has adjusted my lifestyles in such quite a few manners by which, supply you!". go to this website online domestic media tech tab for extra element thank you .

    www.Mesalary.com

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online