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Google Faces Antitrust Suit from 38 States

Google is facing a third antitrust lawsuit, this time over allegations that the company manipulates its search results to give it a business advantage over competitors.


The suit, led by attorneys general from Nebraska and Colorado, involves 38 states and elected officials from both parties. It alleges that Google has used anti-competitive practices to become the dominant search engine. Among the practices the suit cites are deals that place Google as the default search engine on browsers and smartphones and the company's use of paid ads to drive search results.


This case joins another suit by state attorneys general and one by the federal government that attack the company for practices alleged to squelch competition. Democratic and Republican elected officials have complained the company is too powerful and manipulates the market in illegal ways. They contend that the company's actions have led to a situation where it faces no effective competition, something they say is dangerous.


Google and its supporters push back against these claims. They say that the company came to its dominant position by offering a better product than its rivals. They point out that pre-Google search engines were not very accurate and argue that the company grew by meeting consumer demand.


The separate suits by state attorneys general may be consolidated. It is unclear how the incoming Biden Administration will handle the federal suit against Google.


Do you think that Google engages in uncompetitive practices?

Trump Issues Defense Bill Veto Threat over Social Media Protections

President Donald Trump tweeted that he is set to veto defense authorization legislation. The subject of his ire is not anything in the bill or anything related to the military. Instead, he said that the legislation should include a repeal of a federal law that provides some liability protection for social media platforms.


On Tuesday night, President Trump tweeted:


Section 230, which is a liability shielding gift from the U.S. to “Big Tech” (the only companies in America that have it - corporate welfare!), is a serious threat to our National Security & Election Integrity. Our Country can never be safe & secure if we allow it to stand....Therefore, if the very dangerous & unfair Section 230 is not completely terminated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk. Take back America NOW. Thank you!


Many congressional Republicans and Democrats also have issues with Section 230. This provision dates to a 1996 law concerning federal regulation of online services. The section states, in part, "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." in essence, this means that services like Facebook and Twitter cannot be sued for moderating content in good faith. 


President Trump and some Republicans have accused social media platforms and Google of liberal bias in moderating content. Democrats, on the other hand, say that these companies have not gone far enough to remove false or hateful speech. Congress has held hearings with officials from these companies where both Democratic and Republican members have criticized them for how they operate their businesses.


Repealing Section 230 would make it easier to sue social media companies for their moderating activities. President Trump has grown increasingly angry over what he perceives as unfair treatment from the platforms, and has made repeal a high priority. While there is bipartisan support for some sort of Section 230 reform in Congress, there is no agreement on what form that should take. Critics of repeal argue that easing civil suits would have a negative effect on free speech. 


Currently Congress is meeting in a lame duck session to finish work on a variety of legislation. One of the bills under consideration would authorize U.S. defense operations. While there are disagreements on the details of this bill, there is bipartisan agreement that it needs to pass this year. Congressional leadership reacted to the president's tweet by pointing out that technology policy is not relevant to the defense bill. They contend that this matter should be dealt with in separate legislation.


If the president vetoes the defense authorization legislation, a supermajority of Congress could override that veto.

Do you think that Congress should include repeal of Section 230 in the defense authorization legislation?

Trump Administration Looking to Tighten Law on Social Media Companies

President Trump has routinely attacked social media companies like Twitter and Facebook for what he perceives as anti-conservative bias. Today, his administration unveiled legislation that would remove some of the legal protections that these companies enjoy.


Attorney General William Barr outlined a bill that would make social media companies liable for some of the content published on their sites. It reforms Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which currently protects these sites from liability for what users post on them. It also allows these companies to moderate user content without facing civil suits.


Under the Trump Administration's proposal, companies would only have protections from liability when they undertake much more limited content moderation. The legislation would restrict these companies' ability to remove or alter posts unless they meet a stricter federal definition. They would also be liable if they did not act quickly enough to remove certain types of content, such as that which violates federal law.


Both Democrats and Republicans have been critical of social media sites for how they moderate and delete content. The president and his allies say the sites are biased against conservatives, while Democrats contend the sites do not do enough to remove alleged falsehoods by the president. There have been numerous proposals to alter the companies' legal liability in response. Critics of these efforts argue that they amount to federal censorship, and that they would inhibit the growth of the online community.


While there is bipartisan support for reform of federal law governing social media companies, it is unlikely the Trump Administration proposal will advance in Congress. It is both very late in the legislative session for work on new legislation, and there is resistance among Democrats to support legislation they see as the president's efforts to punish tech companies.


Do you think that social media companies should be liable for removing user content?

Portland Bans Use of Facial Recognition Software

This week the Portland city council unanimously passed legislation to ban the use of facial recognition technology by either government entities or private businesses.


When this ban takes effect in January 2021, Portland will join a handful of other cities in prohibiting the use of this technology. Portland’s prohibition of facial recognition technology will be the strictest among these other cities, however. It not only bars the police and other local government agencies from deploying facial recognition software, it also prohibits private companies (including airlines using the Portland airport) from doing so.


Privacy advocates have raised concerns about the use of this technology to track individuals. They contend that it leads to the government gaining too much information on individual behavior. They also note that studies have found racial bias as part of the software. Police and law enforcement support this technology, arguing that it helps identify criminals. Stores also use facial recognition software to identify shoplifters.


There have been moves at the federal level to prohibit the use of this technology, but Congress has yet to act on this legislation. 


Do you think facial recognition software should be banned?

Trump Threatens to Shut Down Social Media Sites

This week, Twitter decided to fact-check President Donald Trump’s tweets. In response, President Trump is threatening to shut down Twitter and other social media companies – a move that many observers say runs counter to the First Amendment.


On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted:


Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen. We saw what they attempted to do, and failed, in 2016. We can't let a more sophisticated version of that.... happen again.


On Tuesday, he also complained about this issue, tweeting, “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH.”


This comes after Twitter put a link to a fact-checking article below a string of tweets that the president made regarding mail-in ballots. The president’s tweet claimed that this type of election would be “substantially fraudulent.” Twitter posted a link where users could see statements that claimed the president was making false statements.


This move by Twitter came in response to observers who said the platform had a duty to prevent the president from spreading falsehoods using its services. They argue that President Trump routinely says things that have little or no basis in fact, and that Twitter is aiding this misinformation by letting him do it. After Twitter acted, however, President Trump and others are accusing it of liberal bias and trying to influence the 2020 election in favor of Democrats.

It is unclear what power the president has to shut down or regulate social media companies. Twitter is breaking no law by fact-checking users, and these companies are broadly protected by the Constitution from federal interference in speech on their platforms. In fact, some legal experts say that President Trump’s threats are imposing a “chilling effect” on speech by merely threatening government action.


Do you think that the federal government should regulate content on social media platforms like Twitter?

Court Upholds FCC’s Net Neutrality Repeal

A federal court refused to reinstate federal net neutrality rules. In a decision handed down today, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals said that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did not break the law when it repealed Obama-era net neutrality regulations.


At issue is the December 2017 vote by the FCC to repeal regulations that classified the services of Internet providers as a public utility. The result of the regulations was to force providers not to discriminate in pricing, content, and the management of the network. The FCC put these rules in place in 2015 to the dismay of service providers. However, companies such as Google and Netflix had lobbied for them.


The 2017 vote did not remove federal oversight from the Internet. In fact, the rule mandates transparency for network management practices. The Federal Trade Commission also regulates Internet service providers. But it did lessen the ability of the government to set rules proactively that constrain Internet service providers.


Proponents of net neutrality rules took the FCC to court, arguing that this repeal was unlawful. The circuit court rejected this argument, but did bar the FCC from prohibiting states from passing similar laws.  


In April, the House of Representatives voted 232-190 in favor of HR 1644, a bill that would reinstate net neutrality rules. The Senate has not taken action on the bill.


Do you favor re-instating net neutrality rules? Should Internet service providers be regulated as public utilities?


GOP Senators Float Social Media Regulation

Facebook and Twitter came under fire during a Senate hearing this week. Some senators even floated ideas to impose more government oversight on these social media companies.


During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Chairman Ted Cruz and other Republicans grilled officials from Facebook and Twitter regarding what they perceive as anti-conservative bias. While saying they did not want to see the government begin regulating these companies, they did float ideas that would increase government oversight of the platforms or open the door for more lawsuits by users.


Likening these companies to public utilities or the “town square,” some Republican senators said that the government had a role to ensure that the companies were not discriminating against certain viewpoints. Bringing up instances that these senators said proved Twitter or Facebook removed conservative content, they said that the government may be needed to preserve fairness.


These companies, as well as Democrats on the committee, pushed back against the idea that conservatives faced systematic discrimination on social media. Democrats pressed the officials to do more to police their content, especially when it comes to hate speech.


Senator Cruz said that no one wanted the government to be the “speech police.” However, he did suggest that the federal government could apply antitrust law to larger social media companies. He also said that Congress could change the law to make the companies liable for users who post libelous content.


Do you think that the federal government should regulate social media companies? Do Facebook and Twitter discriminate against conservatives? Should these companies do more to police hate speech?

House Takes Up Net Neutrality

How strictly the federal government should regulate Internet service providers is the question that the House of Representatives will take up today. The House is set to vote on legislation that would overturn a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote that invalidated net neutrality rules.


In December 2017, the FCC voted 3-2 to repeal “net neutrality” regulations. The regulations in question date to 2015, when the FCC decided to regulate Internet service providers more stringently. In essence, the agency at that time classified the services they provide as a public utility, largely forcing providers not to discriminate in pricing, content, and the management of the network.


H.R. 1644, the bill that the House will vote on, would overturn the 2017 vote and re-impose the 2015 rules. That has been a goal of Democrats in Congress and liberal activists around the nation since the FCC vote occurred.


Not surprisingly, Internet service providers such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast opposed the 2015 net neutrality rules and the House legislation. They do not like the fact that these regulations constrain them from treating different types of customers differently when it came to pricing or network management. Internet content companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, however, are strongly lobbying for the imposition of net neutrality regulations, seeing an advantage in being protected from higher charges when they use far more bandwidth than other websites or apps.


This 2017 FCC rule change did not remove federal oversight from the Internet. In fact, the rule mandates transparency for network management practices. The Federal Trade Commission also regulates Internet service providers. But it did lessen the ability of the government to set rules proactively that constrain Internet service providers.


Do you support legislation to re-impose net neutrality regulations? Should the Internet be treated as a public utility, subject to government rules on pricing and usage?

Senators Mull Regulation of Social Media

Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have become an important force in American public discourse. Some politicians and commentators think they are too powerful. They want to see the federal government impose new rules on these sites. One Senate Democrat even says there may be strong bipartisan support to do just that.


Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey faced members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in early September to answer questions about how foreign governments may have meddled in U.S. elections. Google CEO Sundar Pichai was invited but did not attend the hearing.


This Senate scrutiny of social media comes on the heels of criticism by President Trump and prominent conservatives. The president tweeted in late August, “Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!” Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham echoed that thought a few days later on her Fox News show, saying, “There’s a thought that, given the enormity of these corporations, could there be a movement to treat [Twitter and Facebook] more like public utilities so they have some quasi-government oversight of these entities?”


As indicated by Ingraham’s idea, among the proposals to regulate social media sites is to have the government treat them as something like a public utility. This would recognize them as private entities but ones that are operated with a public purpose. The government would set rules that would prevent social media sites from denying a platform to users based on certain factors, such as political ideology.


Supporters of this level of regulation say that Facebook and Twitter operate much as the town square used to do, giving a space for people to speak and persuade others. As a virtual town square, the argument goes, these sites should allow everyone to speak. Big business has too much power to censor individuals, so the government must step in, according to those who are pushing for more federal oversight.


Opponents of this government regulations point to the dangers of government controlling media platforms. They argue that past federal rules on media content stifled debate about public policy. They say that social media companies should have the power to exclude speech that they deem offensive, such as that from the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, without fear of government reprisals.


While President Trump may be pushing for the federal government to have tighter control over social media companies, it is unclear if there is much support in Congress for such a proposal. Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said there is likely strong bipartisan support for legislation aimed at protecting privacy and cracking down on violent posts. He said that details of such a bill have not been finalized, however.


Should the government impose more regulations on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter? Do you think social media sites discriminate against conservative voices?

Can the Government Mandate Honest Online Ads?


In the wake of allegations over Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Congress is looking at regulating advertising on Facebook, Twitter, and other online platforms. This month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent two days testifying before members of the House of Representatives and the Senate on this and other topics. But some are asking if federal rules for online ads will be an effective way of bringing transparency to the electoral process.


Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, has introduced the “Honest Ads Act,” to expand federal regulation of election ads to cover those placed on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. If passed, that act would express the sense of Congress that “the dramatic increase in digital political advertisements, and the growing centrality of online platforms in the lives of Americans, requires the Congress and the Federal Election Commission to take meaningful action to ensure that laws and regulations provide the accountability and transparency that is fundamental to our democracy.”


For its enforcement provisions, the Honest Ads Act would expand the current federal rules governing electioneering to apply to ads that are being run online. This would require these ads to have some indication of who paid for them. The bill would also mandate that companies with more than 50 million monthly online visitors must maintain a database that has information on anyone who bought more than $500 in political ads, a copy of the ads, the rate charged, and the audience targeted.


Senator Klobuchar’s bill is cosponsored by 22 other Democratic senators and a lone Republican, John McCain of Arizona. There is also a companion bill in the House sponsored by Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington.


Supporters of this legislation say that it is a way to stop Russians and others from using Facebook and Twitter to influence American voters. They contend that mandatory disclosure on ads will help to prevent these activities from taking place in the future. Opponents of the bill say that anyone wishing to use online ads to meddle in U.S. elections can easily evade these reporting requirements. They also point out that maintaining the database as required in the bill will impose significant costs for online companies.


Both Facebook and Twitter have endorsed the bill, although Twitter said it would work with lawmakers to refine and revise it. The companies have also said that they would voluntarily work to provide more transparent information to the public about political ads.


Do you support expanding federal election regulations to cover online political advertisements? Or will these new rules be easily evaded by those looking to influence U.S. elections?



Washington Embraces Net Neutrality


If federal regulators will not impose net neutrality rules on the Internet, then states will take the lead on this issue. At least, that is what is happening in Washington state.


In early March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a net neutrality bill that passed the state legislature by large margins. This bill would prohibit Internet service providers from blocking content that complies with the law, slowing down or stopping Internet traffic based on content, or allowing companies to offer prioritization for customer who pay more.


This legislation essentially codifies the network neutrality regulations overturned by the Federal Communications Commission late last year. The FCC ruled that Congress had not granted the agency statutory power to enact such rules, reversing a decision that the FCC had made during the Obama Administration. Instead, the FCC enacted what it calls a “light touch framework.”


Companies affected by the Washington legislation are likely to challenge it in court. Some observers contend that FCC’s action pre-empts state legislation of this type. They say that states cannot usurp federal regulatory authority. Further, they argue that if such regulations were left to states, it would make it difficult for companies to offer services nationwide given the patchwork of different rules they would face.


Supporters of the Washington bill counter that the FCC ruled that it did not have authority to regulate the Internet in this way, so states are free to act. They say that such rules are essential to an open Internet, and the federal government has left no option but to pursue this issue in state legislatures.


Legislators in other states will be watching what happens with the Washington law. There are similar proposals being considered across the country. While some states may act before any legal challenges over the Washington legislation are complete, others will wait to see what the judiciary has to say. If this law is held to be legal, then there will likely be a number of other states that will enact similar measures.


Do you think that states should enact net neutrality legislation? Or do you think that different laws across the nation will hamper online innovation?


FCC Repeals Net Neutrality Rules


One of the most controversial policy votes of the year took place this week, but it didn’t happen in Congress. Instead, it happened at a regulatory agency – the Federal Communications Commission. Under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, the commissioners voted 3-2 to repeal “net neutrality” regulations. Depending on who you ask, this move will signal the death of the Internet as we know it or it is the federal government removing overbearing regulations that stiffle innovation.


The regulations in question date to 2015, when the FCC decided to regulate Internet service providers more stringently. In essence, the agency at that time classified the services they provide as a public utility, largely forcing providers not to discriminate in pricing, content, and the management of the network.


Not surprisingly, Internet service providers such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast opposed this new regulation. They did not like the fact that they were constrained from treating different types of customers differently when it came to pricing or network management. Internet content companies, such as Facebook and Twiter, lobbied hard for the regulation, seeing an advantage in being protected from higher charges when they use far more bandwidth than other websites or apps.


This new rule change does not remove federal oversight from the Internet. In fact, the rule mandates transparency for network management practices. The Federal Trade Commission also regulates Internet service providers. But it does lessen the ability of the government to set rules proactively that constrain Internet service providers.


Do you think the FCC should have maintained “net neutrality” rules to protect consumers? Or does rolling back this rule from 2015 give freedom for companies to innovate in ways that will serve customers better?


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