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This time even Frances Haugen cannot unite Congress on Big Tech


And unlike Haugen’s media appearance on Capitol Hill in early October, when she testified solo before a Senate trade subcommittee, she had to share the limelight on Wednesday. Republicans called on their own former Facebook employee to testify alongside him: a conservative who echoed their own arguments over censorship.

Lawmakers also appeared to be very distant on the main topic of the hearing: how to rewrite Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a decades-old law that offers broad liability protections for content posted by users. in line.

Haugen even faced tough public questions from GOP lawmakers on Wednesday – for the very first time.

Here are the main takeaways from the POLITICO audience:

Republicans hammer Haugen this time around

The warm welcome and praise Haugen received in his previous appearances before the Senate and policymakers in Europe was less evident on Wednesday, with some Republicans adopting a hostile tone towards the former Facebook product manager.

Several lawmakers, especially Democrats, have praised her again for disclosing thousands of internal documents detailing Facebook’s research into the damage its products inflict on vulnerable populations or political discourse. But tough questions from some GOP members, as well as low in-person attendance at the hearing, show that his star power may wane – and that his credibility with Republican lawmakers may start to erode.

Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s top Republican, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) were among the lawmakers who toasted, snubbed or interrupted Haugen in an unprecedented way during the Senate hearing in October, when members of their party joined with Democrats in applauding Haugen’s strength and bravery for coming forward.

McMorris Rodgers focused on GOP complaints that social media companies censor Tory voices – and in doing so, appeared to view Haugen as a liberal even though she was not explicit about her political views.

“Do you support Big Tech’s censorship of constitutionally protected speech on their platforms?” McMorris Rodgers said, demanding a yes or no answer.

When Haugen didn’t respond in a nutshell, McMorris Rodgers cut her off, saying, “I take that as a no.”

In another apparent snub, Johnson posed a question to Haugen, but then asked witness Kara Frederick, a technology policy researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation, to respond. Johnson has raised concerns over Haugen’s recent testimony to the UK Parliament in which she called on regulators to intervene in the content moderation operations of tech platforms. Johnson argued that government involvement in moderating private business content is a threat to the First Amendment.

“It’s not American,” Johnson said in his round of questioning to Haugen – but he gave Frederick the floor before Haugen could respond.

This added to often colder treatment than Haugen has received since going public as a Facebook whistleblower in October, including in her much-loved appearance in “60 Minutes” and her recent profile in Vogue.

Conservatives bring their own ex-Facebooker

Frederick, the Republicans’ key witness on Wednesday, has at times offered a stark contrast to Haugen, particularly on accusations that Facebook is censoring conservative views on topics such as the origins of the Covid pandemic.

Frederick, who worked at Facebook from 2016 to 2017 and helped develop its Global Security Against Terrorism Analysis program, said she joined the company because of what she saw as its mission. – the democratization of information.

“But I was wrong, we are in 2021, and the verdict is in: Big Tech is an enemy of the people,” she said. “It is time for all independent citizens to recognize this. His arguments were echoed by many Republican lawmakers, even as they opposed the idea of ​​creating an agency to regulate the tech giants.

She added that social media companies like Twitter and Facebook “censor” Republican lawmakers more than Democrats. Both companies have previously dismissed the accusations, and some analysis has revealed that right-wing social media influencers, conservative media and other GOP supporters dominate online discussions on hot political topics.

“Holding Big Tech accountable should lead to less censorship, not more,” said Frederick.

Meanwhile, Haugen called for tighter government oversight of social media companies, including their algorithms.

But the two witnesses agree on one thing: that Facebook’s algorithms amplify extremist content on the platform.

“I am extremely concerned about the role of Facebook in things like the fight against terrorism or the counter-state actors who are militarizing the platform,” Haugen said. “Facebook is chronically underinvested in these capabilities and if you knew the size of the counterterrorism team for threat investigators you would be shocked.”

Facebook, which recently rebranded itself as Meta, disputed this claim. The company has more than 350 employees working against organizations that proclaim or engage in violence and will spend more than $ 5 billion on safety and security this year, according to a spokesperson. (That’s a small percentage of the company’s revenue, Haugen noted.) The company removed 9.8 million terrorist content from July through September, according to its transparency center.

Frederick, who has been deployed to Afghanistan three times for the Defense Ministry, said she went to work at Facebook because she “believed in the danger of foreign Islamic terrorism. I went to make sure that the platform was hostile to these bad actors, illegal actors. Instead, she said, human traffickers, Islamist terrorists and drug cartels all use the platform, despite being against Facebook’s policies.

The holidays are always poles apart on what to do

Democrats and Republicans agreed Congress should focus on the algorithms businesses use to determine what content their users see, including in the debate over the broad accountability protections platforms enjoy under the Act. section 230.

They diverged sharply from there, however.

Democrats often argue that social media platforms are relying on the 1996 law to evade responsibility for disinformation, hate speech and other harmful content on their sites, while many Republicans argue that the law allows tech companies to censor conservative voices with impunity.

None of the Democrat-led bills due for consideration in Wednesday’s hearing had Republican backing – a reflection of the two existing parties on very different wavelengths on the Article 230 changes .

Crenshaw stressed that even bipartisan outrage against Facebook and other big tech players cannot bring the parties together on the issue.

“I want to be clear. (…) Republicans and Democrats do not agree on this issue,” he said during the hearing. “I have observed a smart strategy from the media and some of my colleagues implying that we are all in agreement, that we are all going in the right direction towards the same thing: we are all crazy about Big Tech. is not really true, we have very different views on the problem. “

Despite some commonalities in the parties’ respective proposals, the parties are far from sorting out the thornier details – like the outlines of what Article 230 should cover.

Some Republicans have called for the law to be repealed entirely. One of the four Democratic bills discussed at the hearing – the SAFE TECH Act (HR 3421 (117)) – would take a narrower approach, removing liability protections for extremist and terrorist content.

Prepare for other hearings

A separate group of energy and trade lawmakers – the Consumer Protection Subcommittee headed by President Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) – is calling a related hearing on December 9 on legislation to bring transparency and accountability to social media platforms and their algorithms. Instagram director Adam Mosseri faced a grilling before the Senate Commerce consumer protection panel a day earlier, albeit on a more bipartisan issue: children’s online privacy.

But some see the dissonance between parties over Section 230 as a threat to any broader effort to curb tech companies.

“There are ideas coming from both sides of the stage that are worth debating,” said Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). “The devil is in the details, but if we don’t even try to engage in a two-party process, we’ll never get a strong or lasting policy package.”

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