Hillicon Valley: Facebook employees speak up against content decisions | Trump's social media executive order on weak legal ground | Order divides conservatives

Hillicon Valley: Facebook employees speak up against content decisions | Trump's social media executive order on weak legal ground | Order divides conservatives
© Greg Nash

Welcome to Hillicon Valley, The Hill's newsletter detailing all you need to know about the tech and cyber news from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley. If you don’t already, be sure to sign up for our newsletter with this LINK.

Welcome! Follow our cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and tech reporter, Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills), for more coverage.

FACEBOOK EMPLOYEES SPEAK UP: Facebook employees are publicly criticizing the company for not taking action against President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pitches Goya Foods products on Twitter Sessions defends recusal: 'I leave elected office with my integrity intact' Former White House physician Ronny Jackson wins Texas runoff MORE's comments on protests against police brutality.

ADVERTISEMENT

At least seven Facebook employees have criticized CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergWe haven't seen how low it can go Hillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Facebook considering ban on political ads: reports MORE's decision to take no action against Trump's heated rhetoric on demonstrations in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody.

Jason Stirman, a design manager at the company, said that while he doesn’t know what to do, “doing nothing is not acceptable.”

“I'm a FB employee that completely disagrees with Mark's decision to do nothing about Trump's recent posts, which clearly incite violence,” he tweeted. “I'm not alone inside of FB. There isn't a neutral position on racism.”

Jason Toff, director of product management, said he is “not proud” of the company's position.

“The majority of coworkers I’ve spoken to feel the same way,” Toff tweeted late Sunday night. “We are making our voice heard.”

Existing tensions between the staff and top executives were exacerbated after Trump used his social media accounts to weigh in on the demonstrations in Minneapolis against the death of Floyd, an unarmed black man who died last week while in police custody. Video of the incident showed a police officer kneeling on Floyd's neck for roughly eight minutes, leaving him unable to breathe.

The officer, Derek Chauvin, was charged Friday with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Earlier in the week, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo fired Chauvin and three other officers who were on the scene.

ADVERTISEMENT

Before Trump tweeted Friday, footage showed protesters in the city cheering as the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd Precinct was set ablaze.

“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen," the president wrote Friday on Facebook and Twitter.

“Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts," he added. "Thank you!"

While Twitter placed a warning on the tweet, Facebook left the remarks untouched. The Facebook post has received more than 254,000 reactions and 71,000 shares.

Zuckerberg explained his decision to leave the post up as is, saying the platform’s policy around incitement of violence “allows discussion around state use of force.”

“I disagree strongly with how the President spoke about this, but I believe people should be able to see this for themselves, because ultimately accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open,” Zuckerberg wrote on Friday.

Read more.

ZUCKERBERG SPEAKS WITH TRUMP: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke recently with President Trump to express concern over the president's response to protests against the death of George Floyd, Axios reported Sunday.

Zuckerberg reportedly "expressed concerns about the tone and the rhetoric," used by the president on a phone call Friday, the news outlet reported, while one source familiar with the call told Axios that Zuckerberg argued that Trump was putting the company in a difficult position with the tone of his remarks.

At issue was a tweet and corresponding Facebook post sent earlier in the day by Trump quoting a former Miami police chief while referring to violent protests in Minneapolis and other cities: "When the looting starts, the shooting starts."

"Just spoke to Governor Tim WalzTimothy (Tim) James WalzMinnesota lawmakers blast pharmaceutical industry lawsuit over insulin affordability law Judge in George Floyd case tells attorneys, officials, family to limit public statements Internal watchdog investigating if Air Force improperly used plane to surveil protests: report MORE and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!" Trump tweeted.

Zuckerberg's conversation with Trump comes as his platform as well as Twitter have been under fire from activists and some Democratic lawmakers for allowing some of the president's messages that have been found to contain false or misleading information to remain up. The companies have argued that they allow public debate on controversial issues, even if statements are found to contain false information.

Read more.

SOCIAL MEDIA EXECUTIVE ORDER ON SHAKY LEGAL GROUND: President Trump's executive order that aims to strip certain legal protections from social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook is making political waves, but legal experts say the measure is mostly toothless and vulnerable to court challenges.

The order drew praise from Trump allies who share the president’s view that Silicon Valley carries an anti-conservative bias. The practical effect of Trump’s executive action, however, is likely to be minimal, according to telecommunications lawyers.

The most ambitious component of the order is a proposal to peel back legal immunities that online platforms have enjoyed for almost 25 years. Those valuable protections fall under a provision of a 1996 law often referred to as Section 230.

Trump’s order argues that the section was never intended to grant blanket immunity “to allow a handful of companies to grow into titans ... and silence viewpoints that they dislike.”

Legal experts say that hollowing out the key provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act would turn the internet upside down, shifting it from a system that has mostly relied on self-governance to one of federal oversight and civil litigation.

Yet many legal observers don’t see the order succeeding in reshaping how the internet is regulated. In addition to likely court challenges, the order also faces a few regulatory hurdles within the government.

Under the order, the Trump administration will first direct an agency within the Commerce Department to file a petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to clarify the scope of Section 230. If the FCC were to issue a new rule, it could make social media platforms more liable for claims based on third-party content as well as their efforts to moderate their platforms, which currently enjoy legal cover as long as the platforms operate in good faith.

As an independent agency, the FCC could refuse the request. The two Democratic members of the five-person commission have already announced their opposition to Trump’s idea.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Social media can be frustrating. But an Executive Order that would turn the Federal Communications Commission into the President’s speech police is not the answer,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the Democratic commissioners.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (R) has not make his view publicly known, saying only that the commission "will carefully review any petition for rulemaking" filed by the Trump administration, adding, “This debate is an important one.”

Experts in telecommunications law say Pai is unlikely to undercut the current suite of legal protections.

“Right now, I have no doubt that Ajit Pai of the FCC is not going to move on this,” said Berin Szoka, a senior fellow at TechFreedom, a free market think tank.

Trump’s plan would have a higher likelihood of succeeding if he were to win a second term and nominate a new FCC chairman who is more favorable to issuing a new sweeping rule.

Commissioner Brendan Carr (R) has spoken favorably about Trump’s proposal.

“I think given what we’ve seen over the last few weeks, it makes sense to let the public weigh in and say, is that really what Congress meant when they passed and provided those special protections?” Carr told Yahoo Finance on Thursday.

ADVERTISEMENT

Still, Szoka and other experts who spoke to The Hill agreed that a new rule by the FCC would invite legal challenges.

Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law and Policy, said Trump would face an uphill battle in court.

Read more.

...AND DIVIDES IT REPUBLICANS, TOO: Conservatives are deeply divided over President Trump’s executive order directing the federal government to consider stripping some of the legal protections afforded to the social media platforms.

The order, which came after Twitter appended a fact check to one of the president’s claims about mail voting fraud, would ostensibly make it easier to sue the social media platforms over content posted by the people who use their websites. 

Conservatives have long been concerned by what they view as political bias in Silicon Valley. Those concerns have grown as outlets such as Google, Twitter and Facebook have become primary sources of news aggregation for many consumers.

But some conservatives are appalled by Trump’s executive order, viewing it as an authoritarian power grab that will lead to government censorship, an explosion of frivolous lawsuits and a massive expansion of the regulatory state.

Others are celebrating what they view as a long overdue crackdown on an industry they believe has grown too powerful and too willing to stifle conservative speech. 

The executive order has split traditional ideological allies, including Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMJ Hegar wins Democratic battle to challenge John Cornyn The Hill's Campaign Report: Key races take shape in Alabama, Texas, Maine 5 key races to watch on Tuesday MORE (R-Texas) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Gianforte halts in-person campaigning after wife, running mate attend event with Guilfoyle Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers to address alarming spike in coronavirus cases MORE (R-Utah), two of the most conservative members of the Senate. 

Lee described the order as a “terrible precedent” and a “very dangerous, slippery slope” that is certain to be abused by future administrations seeking to regulate political speech. 

“You keep government as far away from it as you possibly can,” Lee said on Fox News Radio’s “The Guy Benson Show.” 

“Governments have force as their only real weapon. You don’t want force deciding the art of persuasion or deciding the art of communication with social media,” he added. 

Cruz cheered the order, describing Big Tech as “the greatest threat facing our democracy” and arguing that the social media platforms have been able to hide behind legal protections to “target speech with which they disagree and advance their own political agendas.”

“[The tech industry] doesn’t just stifle Americans’ free speech, it shapes what Americans see, hear, and ultimately think about the major issues facing our country, including how those issues should be addressed and who should be elected to address them,” Cruz said in a statement.

At the heart of the debate is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields online platforms from lawsuits stemming from content their users post online. 

Read more.

An op-ed to chew on: House punts on spy bill amid flurry of masks and proxies

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB: 

Anonymous, aiming for relevance, spins old data as new hacks (Cyberscoop / Jeff Stone)

How to protest safely in the age of surveillance (Wired / Andy Greenberg and Lily Hay Newman)

Thousands of people are monitoring police scanners during the George Floyd protests (Motherboard / Joseph Cox)

Uber, Lyft suspending service in some cities due to curfews (CNBC / Jessica Bursztynsky and Deirdre Bosa)