Trump's Twitter lockout raises safeguard concerns

President Trump's brief Twitter lockout has underlined concerns about the safeguards on social media platforms.

The incident came just days after Facebook, Twitter and Google spent hours trying to convince lawmakers that their consumers are safe from abuse. For Republicans, it's the latest example of what they see as Silicon Valley's bias against conservatives.

Twitter initially said that the incident was the result of “human error,” before admitting that the deactivation was actually caused by a rogue customer service employee who was about to leave the company.

“Through our investigation, we have learned that this was done by a Twitter customer support employee who did this on the employee’s last day,” the company tweeted late Thursday night. “We are conducting a full internal review.”

“We have implemented safeguards to prevent this from happening again,” Twitter added on Friday. “We won’t be able to share all details about our internal investigation or updates to our security measures, but we take this seriously and our teams are on it.”

Twitter declined to answer a list of questions from The Hill about the company’s current safeguards against internal abuse or how many employees have the power to shut down users’ accounts.

While many of the president’s critics jokingly celebrated his 11-minute absence from social media, others noted with concern that the incident revealed how few checks internet platforms have on their power.

Jennifer Granick, a lawyer with the ACLU’s technology division, said that abuses of power will become unavoidable if companies continue to face pressure to moderate their content.

“It's not a surprise that Twitter employees have this capability,” Granick said. “The public and Congress have been demanding that the platform companies create the ability to ban people from the platform or delete particular messages.”

While the company would not discuss specific safeguards, an industry source speaking on the condition of anonymity said that Twitter has protections in place against employees posting from users’ accounts.

The debacle comes at an inopportune moment for Twitter, which has faced mounting questions about how it polices user accounts. And internet platforms in general are being scrutinized for their role in Russia’s alleged influence campaign during last year’s presidential race and the companies’ influence over the flow of information.

The growing list of seemingly unrelated issues has helped Silicon Valley’s critics draw attention to what they see as the industry’s unchecked influence. For conservatives, the concern centers on the perceived liberal bias in the tech sector.

"Well, I can say I feel his pain,” Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnSenate campaign fundraising reports roll in This week: Time running out for Congress to avoid shutdown House votes next week on abortion bill MORE (R-Tenn.) said of Trump in an interview with The Hill. “It just shows you how subjective the monitors for Twitter are and how they bring their politics into their preferences for what people are posting and tweeting."

Blackburn has been critical of Twitter since the company removed one of her campaign ads that used the phrase “baby body parts” when referencing her anti-abortion record.

Twitter later reversed its decision and allowed Blackburn’s campaign to promote the video, but the episode fueled many conservatives’ mistrust of social media’s editorial power.

“I think the question that most people have is ‘how are you making your choices?’ ” Blackburn said.

Twitter, Facebook and Google spent hours this week reassuring Congress that they are working to prevent abuse of their platforms after revelations that the internet giants had sold political ads to Russians looking to influence last year’s election.

During the three hearings this week, lawmakers repeatedly pressured the companies to police their platforms for content that may have come from Russian operatives.

Granick said the calls for internet platforms to moderate content that is unpopular are going to lead to even worse abuses from the companies.

“When we implore these private companies to have these capabilities the danger is that people will be silenced and people will not be able to hear messages and that's going to disproportionately affect the weak and vulnerable in our society and not the powerful,” she said.