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Internet Freedom Swirling Around Drain as Dems, Reps Threaten Antitrust Action on Google, et al

Yesterday's hearings didn't clarify much except that Washington is in a mood to regulate tech giants.

Yesterday's House Intelligence Committee hearing with Google CEO Sundar Pichai didn't really deal much with its stated topic of "Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and Its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices." But statements by leading Republicans and Democrats make clear that new forms of regulation are likely to be applied in the coming months or years.

Here's what Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R–Va.), who chaired the hearing, had to say to Fox afterward:

"It's clear that companies like Google are doing more to edit the content that appears on their platform, making them more hands-on. If it were just, 'here's out platform, put whatever you want on it,' that's totally free speech. But if it's not free speech, why do they get a free pass on protection against libel, for example?" he asked, urging Americans to view the questions and answers from the hearing.

Goodlatte said Congress did not get all the answers it wanted from Pichai, but he agreed to provide further information. Goodlatte said Congress must be involved if there is even a "suspicion" that bias by Google employees could be influencing search results.

Fox host Sandra Smith pointed out that as many as 90 percent of web searches go through Google and asked Goodlatte whether antitrust actions were in order. "I would prefer not to regulate," said the congressman, "but I do think the application of our antitrust laws—which promote fair competition—needs to be reviewed."

Then there's Rep. David Cicilline (D–R.I.), who is expected to become the head of the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee when the Democrats take over in January. In a conversation with Bloomberg, he promised to drag execs from Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other tech giants back to Washington and grill them over all sorts of actions he considers anticompetitive. At one point, he says a "Wild West" atmosphere in the tech sector might have been OK at one point, but now the government really needs to be much more involved.

For all of the tech giants' many failings—massive data breaches, crap customer service, inscrutable policies about acceptable behavior, and so much more—things are far more likely to get worse and worse when you effectively give seats on their boards to 535 people in D.C. who don't know an iPhone from an Android.

Watch now:

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...but he agreed to provide further information.

    Slanted a little left, of course.

  • John||

    For all of the tech giants' many failings—massive data breaches, crap customer service, inscrutable policies about acceptable behavior, and so much more—things are far more likely to get worse and worse when you effectively give seats on their boards to 535 people in D.C. who don't know an iPhone from an Android.

    Okay, how will they get worse? It would be nice if Nick ever had a fully developed thought instead of writing meaningless platitudes.

  • speedylee||

    Next step: Mandatory use of Google as a search engine. It's the only unbiased one! Cuz congress is fixing it!

  • Longtorso, Johnny||

    Strip them of common carrier protection and enforce campaign donation in kind laws against them. Reason loves them some campaign fiance law when someone uses it against Trump.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    So, repeal Section 230?

  • John||

    No. Just enforce it as written and in a meaningful way. But we have been down this road before and like everything else, you are incapable of understanding what 230 means. Do the board a favor and don't comment on this issue.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    You think they can only censor smut and violence, when the law itself doesn't say that.

  • damikesc||

    Your cell phone provider cannot stop your call if they dislike what you are saying because they actually are a platform.

    Google isn't a platform anymore. They are a publisher.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    1. There is nothing in Section 230 that requires that a platform must be "fair" or "impartial" or "neutral".

    2. If you think Google is now a publisher, then please give some objective criteria, independent of Google itself, for what precisely constitutes an online publisher, as opposed to a platform.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Would Yahoo have been a publisher than? Back in their hey day they were manually curated.

  • buybuydandavis||

    The CDA is premised on a number of findings and policy assertions, including user control and true diversity of political discourse.
    https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/47/230

    (2) These services offer users a great degree of control over the information that they receive, as well as the potential for even greater control in the future as technology develops.
    (3) The Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.

    (3) to encourage the development of technologies which maximize user control over what information is received by individuals, families, and schools who use the Internet and other interactive computer services;

    What exactly a finding or policy means in its implications to enforcement of the law is unknown to me. I would assume it delimits applicability of the law, as otherwise it's superfluous to the legal interpretation of the statute. Maybe. Maybe not.

    But what's clear is that the intent of the law assumes user control of content on a forum, not a publisher of curated ideas.

  • buybuydandavis||

    The relevant clause for immunity is here:
    (A) 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; or

    In this context, "objectionable" does not simply mean "anything the provider objects to", as this renders all the other types of material superfluous parts of the law. They could have written "ban anything you want". They didn't.

    "Otherwise objectionable" means that the previously listed category are meant as exemplars of what objectionable is to mean within the statute. The objection needs to be within the ballpark of those categories, not simply "whatever you happen to object to".

  • TLBD||

    2) Civil liability No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—
    (A) 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; or
    (B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).

    Blanket immunity if you are acting in "good faith". Prove that in court.

    What is the libertarian defense of this section? As long as it only hurts wrong-thinkers?

  • buybuydandavis||

    The law itself is questionable from a libertarian legal perspective. It is a particular statutory legal exemption for one class of corporation from the usual common law rules of legal liability for what they publish.

    I'd think the libertarian move would be to let the legal liabilities of service providers be worked out in case law.

    But it's an imperfect world, and certainly not that libertarian.

    In current law, common carriers who only act as conduits of information have different legal liability than publishers who act to create or curate content. The phone company is not held liable for what you say on a phone call. I don't think that a rental hall is held responsible for what you say in it when you rent the room. But Reason magazine would be held liable for the articles they publish.

    That seems like a proper libertarian balance. If the statute upholds that, it's libertarian.

    But the current operation of internet service providers violates that. They currently act as publishers but are only held to the liability of common carriers.

    I'm talking about the social media companies, not ISPs. I don't think the ISPs do packet inspection for content. Twitter does.

    One creepy bit I noticed with an update to Skype in the last year. They notified users that they reserve the right to filter base on content. It's creepy enough to think that they're actually interpreting the content, let alone playing Thought Police who will disconnect you for WrongThink.

  • TLBD||

    But the current operation of internet service providers violates that. They currently act as publishers but are only held to the liability of common carriers.

    It obviously doesn't, else they would have been sued to oblivion by now.

    So, there is something wrong with Section 230.

    We have people damaging other people's property, other people's reputations, with zero legal recourse.

    Maybe, just maybe, libertarians could do better recognizing problems before they get to the point of government intervention through regulation. But magazines like Reason are happy to watch their perceived enemies get crushed by political operatives masquerading as tech giants, and are happy to be useless virtue signalers when these same political operatives get in the hot seat.

  • buybuydandavis||

    I've seen Cruz claim that the law requires companies to behave as common carriers for their limited liability to hold. So I don't think it's clear what the law actually requires. I don't know if the courts have ruled.

    The best thing would be legislation that is more explicit. Barring that, I'd like to see the administration test the law in the courts to clarify it.

    But don't expect Reason to come out in favor of limiting corporate privilege. To them, free markets means free corporations above all else.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    We have people damaging other people's property, other people's reputations, with zero legal recourse.

    Section 230 does not prevent you from suing another individual for defamation. It just prevents you from suing the online platform hosting the allegedly defamatory comments.

  • OLD Libertarian||

    Seems to me there's an awful lot of "curatin'" goin' on - and in my opinion needs be stopped. How? Ideally competition, but that's taking too long since the world is moving ever faster IMHO

  • Fats of Fury||

    Try this internet trick, Google an image search of "american scientists"

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Holy shit... what the...

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Well, to be fair I'm getting very similar results on duckduckgo.com

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    But with less Barack Obama.

  • OLD Libertarian||

    Isn't duckduckgo just a somewhat more anonymized front end of google?

  • EscherEnigma||

    Cute trick, but it makes perfect sense and has more to do with the English language then google.

    Put simply, the phrase "American Scientist" will, in America, mostly appear in the context of describing a given scientist's non-white ethnicity. So if you start off with an old-style index based search engine (which Google does) your first hits will be pages that include "American Scientist" in close proximity to each other. Which, most of the time, will be part of the phrase "African American Scientist", "Asian American Scientist" and so-on.

    Then there's the machine learning part. This is where Google prioritizes some pages over others based on what other users with similar searches have actually looked at. So again, seeing as, in America, the most common use of "American Scientist" will have some other qualifier attached to the front, that means those get pushed up.

    The end result is that until white scientists in America are commonly referred to, within America, as "European-American Scientists", the search for "American Scientists" is going to give you more ethnic minorities then you'd expect.

    That said, good job demonstrating how easy it is to confuse relevance-based search results for company bias.

  • EscherEnigma||

    This is also why you get a lot of results for specific people, while just searching for "scientists" gets you a lot of stock photos.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Yes, and it might be even moreso for image search as description metadata is usually the number one most significant field for both ranking weight and indexing.

    I recommend y'all read about PageRank if you're curious. Google doesn't rely much on it at all these days, but it's a pretty elegant algorithm and gives you a better idea of how these systems work at scale.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I agree. While I find this stuff interesting, there's usually a reasonable explanation for it. One must be careful to not find conspiracies where there are none, especially when there's plenty of stuff going on with Google/Facechat et. al. that is ugly on its own.

  • A Thinking Mind||

    Well said and accurate.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    One way to limit this effect is to use "US Scientist" rather than "American Scientist as the search term.

  • Fats of Fury||

    US scientist brings up a whole lot of Macron.

  • Fats of Fury||

    Curiously googling Caucasian-American Scientists or white american scientists bring up similar results. caucasian american doctors too.

  • EscherEnigma||

    That's not curious at all, for the same reason: you don't see articles, blogs, mini-bios, etc. and so-on that actually use the phrase "Caucasian-American Scientist".

    The more obscure a word phrase is (in this case, obscure meaning "how often it shows up") the less relevant the results will be. That's how search engines work.

  • RoyMo||

    I did it but got Josiah Gibbs, who is probably the greatest American scientist.

    Curious, I tried another browser and I see what you are saying. Clearly my own browsing history colored my results, time to clear my trackers and change my ip.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Use DuckDuckGo as well.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "white couple"

    now try

    "black couple"
    "Asian couple"

    This is the kind of thing that makes converts to the Alt-Right.

  • LiborCon||

    Here's a neat trick. Google an image search of "american scientists" with Tor Browser. Google won't let you do any searches, it'll just keep throwing up CAPTCHAs. I guess they're not big fans of anonymity.

    With DuckDuckGo I got mostly men who aren't white when my IP shows me to be in the UK. I get the same results in France.

  • buybuydandavis||

    With Brave, I get a bunch of not white guys, and Macron.

    I wonder what's up with Macron.

  • Rich||

    "If it were just, 'here's [our] platform, put whatever you want on it,' that's totally free speech. But if it's not free speech, why do they get a free pass on protection against libel, for example?"

    Would someone *kindly* explain Goodlatte's remark?

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    You'd probably have better luck explaining to him the difference between an iPhone and an Android phone.

  • DenverJ||

    From EFF: "Section 230 says that "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" (47 U.S.C. § 230). In other words, online intermediaries that host or republish speech are protected against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do."
    So, he's saying that, by filtering, they are in effect acting as editors, therefore they should be liable for things like libel.

  • Greg F||

    Would someone *kindly* explain Goodlatte's remark?

    Here is some background.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Nothing mysterious

    If you act as a content neutral common carrier, you're like the phone company, and get the same legal liability for what is said or you service as the phone company does, which is none at all.
    If you act as a publisher, filtering content, you'll have the same legal liability as a publisher.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I like these show trials where politicians pretend to ask tough questions, the executives pretend to squirm in their seats and cooperate, and everyone's really on the same page: Solidify their position of power.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    And by the way, the reason Congress has become so interested as of late in regulating internet companies is previously, it was difficult to do as there were so many small players and the internet was still relatively federated. Now they have something TO regulate. Funny that.

  • Juice||

    It's a trial?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    It's a show trial.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I think it was Wittgenstein who wrote about "meaning blindness".

    You knew what he meant, right?

    We describe what's happening in terms of association. It's how our minds work.

    "To see" is to understand, and when a blind man says, "I see", he isn't incorrect if he's using the expression to say he understands.

    Yes, really. Something can be a show trial without actually being a trial.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    While I suppose this sort of Congressional show trial is slightly less stupid than their investigation of, say, steroids in baseball, it still seems to me to be a useless
    distraction from what they should be doing.

    Have they passed a budget yet, much less one that is balanced? No?

    How about declaring war? The last declared war was WW2. Yet there is war with US military involved in what, 9 different countries right now? Seems like they should either be declaring those or ENDING them if they don't seem worth declaring.

    In the private sector, you don't get to ignore your important work in favour of grandstanding about stuff that isn't even part of your job description. You get shot canned pretty quickly if you try.

    These guys are protected thanks to the stupid duopoly and idiotic voters. But if I had my way, I'd be reintroducing the stocks for these lazy work-shirkers. Maybe being restrained in an uncomfortable position while passers-by throw rotten produce at them would actually stimulate their motivation for passing a balanced budget.

  • buybuydandavis||

    I think it's a big deal.

    If you want everything regulated by the market, are you really ready for that?

    Phone service bans wrongthink.
    Roads ban wrongthink.
    Mail bans wrongthink.

    Not just Twitter, but your ISP bans wrongthink.

    Then they ban *you*, once you've communicated wrongthink while on their platforms.
    Next, when you've communicated wrongthink on *other* platforms.

    "Muh free markets"

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    "Muh free markets"

    So what is your alternative to free markets?

  • Ken Shultz||

    Interesting fact from the hearing:

    "NADLER: Does Google now know the full extent to which its online platforms were exploited by Russian actors in the election two years ago?

    PICHAI: We have -- you know we undertook a very thorough investigation, and in 2016, we -- we now know that there were two main ad accounts linked to Russia, which -- which you know, advertised on Google for about $4,700 in advertising."

    https://www.wsj.com/articles /google-visits-the-resistance-factory-11544645372?

    Does anybody know how much Russia is alleged to have spent on Facebook?

    Hilary spent over a $1 billion on ads. Outsiders spent billions more.

    I thought we were talking about something bigger than that.--$4,700?!

    There's no substitute for critical thinking, and there never will be. I'd accuse these fuckers of trying to turn a crisis into something, but in this case, there doesn't even seem to be any crisis--unless you think Trump winning the presidency is a crisis.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    It defies reason, doesn't it, that Russians spending less than $5k on Google and about ten times as much on Facebook managed to defeat Hilary's $1 billion in campaign spending.

    How is that every campaign out there isn't begging to hire these guys? They got better results on a shoestring than seasoned campaign managers can spending infinitely more! And they are not even Americans or natine English speakers! It's incredible.

  • buybuydandavis||

    How much did the BBC spend on google ads? You know, British State Media.

    Anyone think they have no political bias?

    This whole, "OMG, the Russians had preferences and tried to persuade" is fundamentally opposition to free speech. They want to make it illegal to *hear* opinions outside the country. At least, *some* opinions.

    Emperor Xi feels the same way about his peasants.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Meanwhile, I keep seeing the same things happening all over the developed world for the same reasons, and those reasons have nothing to do with fake news.

    Brexit wins.
    Trump wins.
    Merkel gets kicked out by a populist party.
    France explodes in flames.

    Is this happening all over the developed world because of what people are reading on the internet, or is this happening because elitist progressive types are being rejected by huge swathes of average people everywhere?

    I saw Reuters quote a poll showing that half the people of France think the yellow jacket protests should end as an encouraging sign. You mean the other half of the French people think the protests should continue--even after Paris has exploded in violence--and that's a good sign?

    Are you kidding?

    I don't believe hating elitists for being elitists is a result of reading fake news.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "You mean the other half of the French people think the protests should continue--even after Paris has exploded in violence--and that's a good sign?"

    The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

    I think it's good when the People fight back against tyranny. And the EU is tyranny, aiming to be ever more tyrannical.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Heh heh heh. Google and Apple both to rent storage, then refuse to accept payment so they can jack you around and destroy your data--unless you have a Dropbox account. AAPL stock is lowest in a year. Down my schadenfreude! Couldn't happen to more deserving creeps...

  • Mark P||

    When is freedom associated with fascism? Google executives are hired from the Obama administration and vice versa; Bezos got a sweetheart USPS deal from the Obama administration, allowing Amazon to undercut the shipping costs of all of their competitors. The association of big business with government is FASCISM.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "The association of big business with government is FASCISM."

    Then how can government ownership of business be socialism?

    Fascists often had business, along with everything else, working for the benefit of the state by way of corporatism, but that was hardly its dominant feature. I'd say its defining characteristics had to do with totalitarianism, being a one-party state, nationalism, etc.

    Google, Amazon, Facebook, et. al. aren't fascists. They're just plain ol' rent-seeking.

  • Nardz||

    "Google, Amazon, Facebook, et. al. aren't fascists. They're just plain ol' rent-seeking."

    Just like Mercedes

  • Ken Shultz||

    Funny you should mention that.

    My understanding is that this kind of corporatism has quite a history in Germany, going back to Bismark trying to run an end around socialism. They brought in a social welfare system, etc. to head that off, and they brought their corporate governance laws into effect, too. My understanding is that German corporations (over a certain size) must have a certain number of seats on their corporate board elected by employees (I think it's half). It's those kinds of half-assed socialist measures we're talking about that showed as a "third way" between communism and capitalism, supposedly. No, the unions and the government don't actually own the means of production as they would under a truly socialist system, but they sit on the board of directors in equal measure to the shareholders?!

  • Ken Shultz||

    Germany gets away with a lot of shit they wouldn't get away with if it weren't for some accidents of history. I'll name two:

    1) Productivity

    German workers are among the highest paid workers in the world, but they're also among the most productive. You can get away with "overpaying" your employees because their rates are set by unions at the national level IF IF IF they're so freaking productive. Some of it's that they have a tradition of engineering and introduced automation in manufacturing before a lot of other people did, but some of it's just that they're both fast and meticulous. Whatever cultural artifacts make those people scrub the sidewalks in front of their houses and refuse to disobey crosswalk signals even after the clubs let out and the place is deserted also makes them productive as freaking get out.

    2) The Weakness of the Euro relative to the Mark

    As much as Germany bailing out the rest of Europe irks Germans, using the Euro and the weakness countries like France, Italy, Spain, and Greece put on the currency is of major benefit to the German economy in terms of its exports. Germany can export like it does because their goods are priced in a currency that is much weaker than the German Mark would be. A stronger Euro would make their exports less competitive.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "My understanding is that German corporations (over a certain size) must have a certain number of seats on their corporate board elected by employees (I think it's half)."

    Corporations are creations of the State.

  • Sevo||

    "Corporations are creations of the State."

    Please explain *exactly* what that means and, equally important, what innuendo is intended.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Corporations are legal entities sanctioned by States whereby the owners get rights and responsibilities separate from their individual rights. They're not taxed as individuals, they're not held liable as individuals.

    It's common to complain about the requirements States put on corporations, like:
    My understanding is that German corporations (over a certain size) must have a certain number of seats on their corporate board elected by employees

    While forgetting about the special privileges granted.

    This kind of one sided whining is particularly common at Reason. "Muh individual rights", while ignoring the special privileges granted to corporations.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "Corporations are legal entities sanctioned by States whereby the owners get rights and responsibilities separate from their individual rights. They're not taxed as individuals, they're not held liable as individuals."

    They're taxed as individuals in every way.

    I pay taxes on my dividends. I pay taxes on my capital gains. In what way am I not taxed as an individual.

    In fact, my profits are taxed twice because, in addition to paying taxes on dividends, the corporation also pays taxes on my profits before they're distributed as dividends.

    What are you talking about special privileges granted? What special privileges? Aren't you ultimately talking about the right of association? That I'm allowed to pool my resources with other like-minded individuals in pursuit of maximizing profits? That isn't a privilege any more than freedom of speech.

    Even the limited liability isn't a special privilege. Why should I be liable for decisions made by management that I knew nothing about? I risked my investment, and if they make bad decisions that cost the company money, I can lose my investment. Why should I lose more than my investment? Executives at corporations are still criminally liable for the bad choices they make that violate people's rights. They're tried, convicted, and sent to jail for it all the time.

  • Sevo||

    "It's clear that companies like Google are doing more to edit the content that appears on their platform, making them more hands-on. If it were just, 'here's out platform, put whatever you want on it,' that's totally free speech. But if it's not free speech, why do they get a free pass on protection against libel, for example?" he asked, urging Americans to view the questions and answers from the hearing."

    IIRC, this guy is among those who leaned on Google because of Russki gifs. Now maybe he, personally, was not among those who did so, but I see no disclaimer that he opposed those actions, and this would certainly be the time to make that very clear.
    I am no fan of Google; Bing is my preferred search engine, Firefox the browser (I like my personal data as widely broadcast as possible), but it seems they're in the classic anti-trust head-lock:
    1) If your price is higher than your competitors, you're gouging.
    2) If lower, you're engaged in cut-throat competition.
    3) The same? You're colluding.
    If Google did (as they should have) when those dimbulbs whined about the Russkis and told them "We do not edit content", they'd at least have the high ground. The didn't. The caved and agreed to be editor. So my sympathy is zip.

  • Bubba Jones||

    What is the libertarian preferred search engine?

  • Ken Shultz||

  • Ken Shultz||

    We don't store your personal information. Ever.

    Our privacy policy is simple: we don't collect or share any of your personal information.

  • Sevo||

    Done; Firefox (and the lame claim that they 'put people before profits') is gone.
    I'll tell you how much they 'put people before profits': use whatever mapping/street-view service you have. Search "388 The Embarcadero", San Francisco. Rotate for the view out over the bay.
    Yep, there's some happy people sitting in those offices!

  • Bubba Jones||

    Is google colluding to drive up the price of searches? If not, then what is the tort?

  • Sevo||

    A congress-critter riding the band-wagon; it needs that and an ignorant populace to tar and feather Google. 'Cause Russkis!

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