Technology

Trump attacks rattle tech

President Trump's attacks on the tech industry are putting Silicon Valley on the defensive.

Trump and congressional Republicans are hammering web and social media companies for what they see as bias against conservatives. But that push is opening the door to scrutiny over other issues as well and emboldening those who have sought tighter regulations on the industry.

Trump last week blasted Google, accusing the search giant of censoring right-wing media outlets and promoting news sites critical of his administration. The president posted a video that purported to show Google's homepage linked to former President Obama's State of the Union addresses, but not his.

The clip was quickly and widely debunked and Google issued a statement denying that it skewed its search results in support of "any political ideology."

But Trump broadened his attack, warning Facebook and Twitter, that like Google, they were "treading on very, very troubled territory."

Republicans and tech have long sparred over allegations of bias. Under mounting pressure from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and others, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey will testify on the issue before Congress this week.

But Trump's remarks mark a new escalation and are ramping up the pressure the industry is facing.

Trump's remarks seemed to open the door to tougher scrutiny from GOP lawmakers on other issues as well.

On Thursday, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the longest-serving member of the Senate, wrote to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), urging the agency to probe Google's dominance in search and advertising as well as its data collection practices.

The move made him one highest-profile Republicans yet to call for government action against a tech giant. Hatch's office said that the letter was unrelated to Trump's attacks.

The FTC closed an antitrust investigation into Google in 2013 without charges against the company. But since then, Hatch and others argue, the internet company has grown and reports have surfaced of its data collection and how it uses its power over search and advertising to shut out rivals.

"Needless to say, I found these reports disquieting," Hatch wrote Thursday. "Although these reports concern different aspects of Google's business, many relate to the company's dominant position in search and accumulating vast amounts of personal data."

Trump seemed to echo Hatch's concerns hours later, telling Bloomberg in an interview that there's an "antitrust situation" regarding Google, Facebook and Amazon. He declined to comment on whether the companies should be broken up. A spokesman for the White House didn't respond when asked for more details.

Tech is already facing a hostile climate in Washington, amid tough questions about the market dominance of its largest companies and over its data privacy practices.

Tech supporters say the allegations of censorship are unsubstantiated and that there is little evidence to back claims that web and social media companies are trying to censor conservatives.

McCarthy has been one of tech's most vocal critics. In one tweet he criticized Google for showing "Nazism" as one of the California GOP's ideologies. But that was the result of a third-party making edits to the state's Wikipedia page, not Google itself.

In another tweet McCarthy questioned if Twitter was censoring conservative host Laura Ingraham, but that outcome was the result of his own Twitter settings.

A spokeswoman for Google didn't respond when asked for comment.

Conservatives though show no signs of backing off.

Alan Rosenblatt, director of digital research at the left-leaning opinion firm Lake Research Partners, said the conservative push appeared to be aimed at firing up supporters during a tough summer for Republicans and ahead of the midterms.

"It's all speaking to the base. So much of what they've been doing is hot air. If it was legit, if they actually had legislative intent, they would be writing legislation," Rosenblatt told The Hill in an interview.

Still, the issue is resonating with the GOP base. And with Trump on board tech companies will not be able to ignore the claims of bias.

Some tech experts worry that the debate over conservative bias is overtaking other important issues with the industry.

"For those who have been following and testing how Google makes decision for many years, I don't think there's a lot of concern," Jason Kint, the CEO of digital media trade association Digital Content Next, told The Hill in an interview. "I think there's a much more sophisticated discussion happening around the competition issues and the control issues of these major tech companies.

"I think the bias discussion is a bit of a distraction from that," he added.

Silicon Valley is still feeling the heat on other issues from their handling of users' data to the use of their platforms by foreign information campaigns in election.

The industry is already scrambling to prevent a repeat of 2016. Facebook and Google have already taken action against misinformation campaigns directed at the midterms and been more transparent than in the past at disclosing those efforts.

An important test will come this week when Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on their efforts to combat online disinformation campaigns.

Google has so far declined the panel's invitation for Larry Page, the CEO of its parent company, to join them.

Dorsey will also testify in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to respond to allegations of conservative bias.

Tech now finds itself at the center of a storm, but some experts said there is still time for the industry to better explain its case to lawmakers.

"I believe that the more we have these hearings then the more educated that Congress becomes and the press becomes and the public becomes," Kint told The Hill.

"It's a positive step."

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