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Free Speech

Floor Speech

Date: Nov. 16, 2020
Location: Washington, DC


Mrs. BLACKBURN. Mr. President, I think everyone has been watching a lot of news lately, and I will tell you I have talked to some Tennesseeans this weekend who feel like they can tell that the journalists working at our mainstream media outlets are getting frustrated by how much pressure we are putting on big tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. But, you know, we are putting pressure on them. It is important for them to be in their lanes. It is important that if they are going to be news sources, that they do something like hire a news director.

I think they have fallen into the same trap that a lot of people fall into when a story dominates the headlines for awhile, and then it doesn't resolve itself quickly. You know, they get pretty sick of hearing about it. They saw the initial reports of censorship, bias, and antitrust concerns. They didn't feel that personal sense of outrage about what was happening and either checked out of the conversation or let their frustration breed resentment against those who would very much like for their tweets to stay put.

But they knew something was going on out there that made them a little bit uneasy. They were hearing about censorship. They were hearing about blocking and throttling and shadow banning, and, you know, they were a little unsettled by lack of privacy and data mining and data harvesting.

But we shouldn't use these basic notions of privacy, security, and open debate as a political football. These are, indeed, universal concerns that anyone who owns a smartphone, uses social media, or uses search engines really should care about. And, yes, people are right to feel a little bit uneasy about what is going on in the virtual space. Why shouldn't we be allowed to ask powerful tech CEOs questions about what is going on behind the scenes?

We had a hearing in the Commerce Committee a couple of weeks ago--a few weeks ago, just prior to the election. Chairman Wicker was in charge of that hearing, and people listened and thought: Why won't they answer the question? Why don't they admit that they are data mining? Why don't they admit their advertising practices? We click onto our search engines, and suddenly our screen populates with things that we have recently searched and things we have been talking about.

So we have another hearing that is coming up tomorrow at the Judiciary Committee. We are going to receive testimony from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about their now infamous censoring and throttling of the New York Post's social media accounts, their blocking of a story that was relevant to the American people and to the election process.

Now, keep in mind, this wasn't some conspiracy site or some anonymous blog known for posting hacked information or stories that are extreme. This was the New York Post, a trusted source in news here in the United States since 1801, when it was founded by none other than Alexander Hamilton. It is not sensationalism. It is news brought to you as a trusted source since 1801.

And you are probably thinking, that has been around for awhile. And, yes, indeed it has. It is America's oldest continuously published newspaper. But, apparently, random fact checkers 3,000 miles away, sitting in their posh environs in the Silicon Valley, decided that the Post editors' time-tested vetting processes simply were not good enough for them. They think they know better. They think they are smarter than everyone else. They think--since they control and have power in the virtual space, they think they get to play God. They think they can determine what qualifies as free speech.

Now, I have spoken before at length about why this is a problem, and right now I want to focus on what happened on the other side of that takedown.

The Post fought both Facebook and Twitter on this content moderation decision. They questioned it. They demanded answers. And after enormous pressure, both from the Post and in the public square, both Facebook and Twitter eventually walked back their moderation decisions and allowed their users to share this article. That they decided to censor the Post is bad enough; that they couldn't even cite a policy that they could back up their decision under pressure is even worse. They couldn't tell you why they took it down, what it violated in their community standards, and what they violated in their terms of service. They did not know.

What did they know? What they did know was that they were on Joe Biden's team. They wanted him to win, so they took issue with anything that they did not agree with. It did not fit their narrative.

Big Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter have an enormous amount of control over the flow of information. They were designed to be this way from the beginning. Millions of Americans used their feeds as a main source of news updates.

Bear in mind, the internet is a title I function of the 1996 Telecommunications Act--a title I. It is an information service. It is not a telecommunications service. It is not a news service.

This is something. It is a wonderful resource that should be the public square but only as long as you can count on it to put factual information in the pipeline, to not censor, and to not take sides.

This is why Americans have so many questions about how the companies make their content moderation decisions, and this is why the Judiciary Committee will hold this hearing tomorrow. If either of their companies had been able to come to the table with a simple, defensible explanation of why they chose to censor the New York Post, I don't think they would be in the position they are in right now. But they had no explanation. They didn't repent. They did cave, eventually, but they could not explain why they blocked it.

Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey are competent CEOs who know their businesses inside and out, and it is time for them to get down to the nitty-gritty and explain what happened. How is it that their content moderation practices are still so full of holes as to allow a content moderator--a single individual--to put their opinion in front of a post, to panic and blacklist an admittedly sensational but certainly newsworthy story without any evidence that it contained misinformation or hacked information or false or defamatory information? They did it because they could. They just did not like the story.

The ensuing scramble to walk back that decision is an indictment of their internal moderation processes. Whether it is algorithms or individuals, it is subjective.

The people who are responsible for this owe us answers, and we hope the hearing tomorrow will help lead to those answers.

It bears repeating that these companies are not just entertainment or social media companies. They have an inordinate amount of control over the flow of information, and because of this, they control what we see, what we hear, even what we say, and, thereby, what we think and how we vote.