Sparks fly at hearing on anti-conservative bias in tech

Lawmakers clashed Tuesday at a contentious hearing over claims that social media platforms and tech companies are biased against conservative viewpoints.

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee said the hearing addressed a serious issue. But Democrats said the hearing, coming one day after President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL players stand in tunnel during anthem, extending protests 12 former top intel officials blast Trump's move to revoke Brennan's security clearance NYT: Omarosa believed to have as many as 200 tapes MORE dismissed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election during a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, was a waste of time.

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“This committee has oversight of the Department of Justice,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). “Our president also disparaged the Department of Justice. Are we having a hearing on that? No.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), the panel's top Democrat, tried to end the hearing early by introducing a motion to end discussion of alleged bias and instead move to an executive session on Russian election interference.

The largely symbolic motion was voted down 12-10.

Fellow Democrats, such as Reps. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDems seek probe into EPA head’s meetings with former clients Hillicon Valley: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | Sparks fly at hearing on social media | First House Republican backs net neutrality bill | Meet the DNC's cyber guru | Sinclair defiant after merger setback Sparks fly at hearing on anti-conservative bias in tech MORE (Md.) and David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineSenate Dems introduce bill to block release of 3D printed gun blueprints States sue Trump administration to block 3D printed guns House GOP refuses to boost funding for election security MORE (R.I.) joined Nadler and Lieu in railing against conservatives for not putting enough focus on Trump and Russia.

Raskin called the conservative fears about bias a “fantasy.”

But Republicans pressed ahead with the hearing over how platforms handle conservative content, grilling three Silicon Valley executives: Facebook’s head of global policy, Monika Bickert; Twitter’s senior policy strategist, Nick Pickles; and YouTube’s head of policy, Juniper Downs.

The lawmakers cited high-profile examples of conservative posts being censored, including one incident when a video for Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnElection Countdown: Takeaways from too-close-to-call Ohio special election | Trump endorsements cement power but come with risks | GOP leader's race now rated as 'toss-up' | Record numbers of women nominated | Latino candidates get prominent role in 2020 Top Koch official fires back at critics: We are not an 'appendage' of the GOP The Hill's Morning Report: Trump tries to rescue Ohio House seat as GOP midterm fears grow MORE's (R-Tenn.) Senate bid accusing Planned Parenthood of selling "baby body parts" was taken down as a campaign ad on Twitter.

Blackburn didn’t speak during the hearing, but she told The Hill before that the “subjective manipulation of algorithms is of tremendous concern for us.”

“We’ve addressed it and we plan on keeping the pressure on big tech,” she added.

Rep. Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaDems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority Dems make big play for House in California Clinton maxes out to 19 Democratic House candidates MORE (R-Calif.) questioned technology companies' legal responsibilities.

Issa pressed Google on an incident where search results claimed Nazism was an ideology of the California Republican Party. The mistake happened because of an incorrect entry on a Wikipedia page that Google used to auto-populate search information boxes.

“When you absorb content, aren’t you absorbing the responsibility?” Issa asked. He asked if major tech companies should now be held to the same standards as media outlets.

During the hearing, Rep. Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingIowa Dem candidate on Pelosi: 'Definitely' time for new leadership Full interview: Democratic candidate J.D. Scholten talks about his run against Steve King in Iowa's 4th Congressional District Midwest Dem candidate: Farm aid plan like getting 'punched in the face'  MORE (R-Iowa) pressed Facebook on why it had allegedly shown content from Gateway Pundit, when content from other users had been blocked. Gateway Pundit is a far-right website that has promoted hoax stories in the past.

King asked if lawmakers should review legal safeguards that allow companies to avoid liability for much of the user-generated content that is posted on their platforms.

“If this gets further out of hand, it appears to me that Section 230 needs to be reviewed,” King said, referring to part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

The provision has widely been seen as pivotal in allowing the growth of web companies by protecting them from frivolous lawsuits over content created by users.

But YouTube's Downs and the other executives said that they shouldn't be held to the same standards as media companies. They said online platforms don't edit users' copy or make editorial judgments in the same way newspapers do.

Throughout the hearing, they stressed that social media platforms are different from publishers and shouldn't be held to the same legal rules.

Democrats also raised their own concerns about social media, in particular claims that companies have been slow to take down users who promote conspiracy theories or hoax stories.

Raskin asked Bickert why InfoWars was still on Facebook, despite apparently violating the company's policies by repeatedly posting false stories. InfoWars is a website that has promoted conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, among others.

Bickert told him that Facebook had removed content from Infowars but that they “have not reached the threshold” for removal yet.

Pressed on what that red line was, Bickert said only that it "depends."

Facebook has cited free speech concerns in response to such criticism in the past.

“We see Pages on both the left and the right pumping out what they consider opinion or analysis — but others call fake news," the company said last week. "We believe banning these Pages would be contrary to the basic principles of free speech."

Despite trading barbs though, both Republicans and Democrats made it clear they intend to keep a close eye on how social media companies police their content going further.

“Your actions around these issues are essential to making sure that your platforms aren’t misused to the detriment of democracy,” Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalRecord numbers of women nominated for governor, Congress Liberal Dems lay groundwork to push 'Medicare for all' Dems seek probe into EPA head’s meetings with former clients MORE (D-Wash.) told the executives.