Zuckerberg insists facebook is ‘platform for all ideas,’ but republicans disagree wjla

After ten hours of testimony across two days, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg left Capitol Hill Republicans unsatisfied this week with his denials of allegations that the social media platform censors conservative content, but legal experts say there may be little Congress can do about it.

“I’m not a fan of more regulation for social media but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask Facebook whether they are a First Amendment speaker with the right to throttle down conservative content if they choose and elevate liberal content or whether they are a neutral public forum where everybody’s ideas have to be treated equally,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said in an interview Wednesday.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., questioned Zuckerberg about a study that claimed conservative content was shown in news feeds much less than liberal content after the company changed its algorithm late last year, but the Facebook founder denied that the process was biased.

The longest exchange on the subject came Tuesday with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who cited, among other things, a 2016 Gizmodo article that claimed Facebook suppressed conservative content in its trending topics section. Zuckerberg recognized that Silicon Valley is “an extremely left-leaning place,” but he said the company does not screen its employees for political views or intentionally make biased decisions.

“The assertion that Facebook has ‘censored’ content on the basis of its politically conservative content is also unsupported by the facts,” said Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law and author of “The Cult of the Constitution: Guns, Speech, and the Internet.” “There is in fact far more evidence to suggest that Facebook’s algorithms and policies allowed ‘conservative’ content to spread much faster and more widely than other types of content.”

The idea of left-wing Silicon Valley silencing the right resonates with conservatives, but according to Elizabeth Cohen, an assistant professor of communication studies at West Virginia University, Facebook’s business model and philosophy give the company no incentive to turn away users or decrease their time on site.

In a Fox News op-ed Wednesday, Sen. Cruz argued that Facebook’s protection from legal liability for content users post under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is dependent on it remaining a “neutral public forum” rather than a “publisher or speaker.”

“If Facebook is busy censoring legal, protected speech for political reasons, the company should be held accountable for the posts it lets through,” he wrote. “And it should not enjoy any special congressional immunity from liability for its actions.”

Section 230 states that no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held civilly liable for “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.”

“It’s 100 percent wrong and it’s an embarrassment that he’s taken this position after the number of times people have tried to convince him otherwise, including me,” said Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law, who testified at a Senate hearing last September.

“That’s exactly completely wrong,” he said. “It’s the exact opposite…. Section 230 was passed for the specific purpose to encourage the companies to moderate content. At that point, they were trying to get them to filter out sexual content.”

“Ted Cruz’s interpretation of Section 230 is not correct and is perilously close to being entirely backwards,” she said. “Section 230 does not require online intermediaries to be ‘neutral platforms.’ There is nothing in the text of the statute to support this reading.”

Experts are skeptical about threats by lawmakers to regulate Facebook’s content or roll back the protections provided by Section 230. Any rule that requires social media platforms to permit or restrict certain political content would violate the First Amendment.

Greene pointed to a 1974 Supreme Court case, Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, that overturned a Florida law requiring newspapers to give equal space to the opponents of candidates they endorse. The court determined that this exacted a penalty on publishers for exercising their free speech.

While forcing Facebook to post or not post certain content would run afoul of the Constitution, Congress does have the authority to alter the provisions of Section 230. Anti-sex-trafficking legislation signed by President Trump Wednesday removed liability protections for some sexual content, but Goldman warned against doing the same for political speech.

The law was written years before Facebook and Twitter were developed, but it enabled the creation of forms of communication like public message boards and consumer reviews that could not easily exist in the real world. The ramifications of declaring that online platforms are legally liable for content their users post would be far-reaching.

Experts agree Facebook has no legal obligation to serve as a platform for all voices. Creating a completely free and fair platform while only filtering out indisputably dangerous speech would also be technologically difficult, according to Ray Klump, chair of computer and mathematical sciences at Lewis University and a former software developer.

Engineers can identify trigger words or subject matter that would block a post or flag it for more scrutiny or filter out content based on the reliability of its source, but there will always be an element of subjectivity to that. At some point, someone has to determine what is and is not offensive or reliable.

Many of the headaches currently plaguing Facebook’s leadership are the result of the site’s past attempts to police its content and protect users from what its staff and algorithms identify as violent or unsafe posts. Once they start blocking some material, there are inevitably questions about why that content was restricted and demands to restrict even more.