In a hearing that often turned dystopian, Democrats, Republicans and witnesses painted Google as a breathtakingly immense and corrupting power.
“Google’s control over what people hear, read, watch, and say is unprecedented.” Ted Cruz stated of Google. “When we search on Google, we see only the web pages Google decides we should see.”
Cruz made the comment during his opening statement at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled “Google and Censorship through Search Engines.”
At this hearing, Google was accused of much more than censorship.
Democrats, Republicans, and witnesses accused Google: of abusing their immunity, bias against conservatives, connecting pedophiles to child pornography, and being anti-competitive by controlling nearly every aspect of digital content. (RELATED: Google Fires Republican Engineer Who Spoke Out Against ‘Outrage Mobs’)
“The question we must ask ourselves as a society is whether we’re comfortable with the world Google is creating for us,” said Jason Kint the Chief Executive Officer of Digital Content Next, and one of the witnesses.
1. The Communications Decency Act and Google’s Unfair Immunity
Ted Cruz, in his opening statement, explained how the Communication Decency Act, a bill passed in 1996, granted Google a special immunity.
“Congress never intended to empower large technology companies to control our speech when it passed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That provision — section 230 — gave tech companies special privileges that nobody else gets. If the New York Times or Wall Street Journal were to publish an op-ed that libeled a private citizen, they can be held responsible,” Cruz said. “This is the case even when these organizations don’t write the content that broke the law. They can be held responsible merely for publishing it. Not so for companies like Google and You Tube. If someone uses one of those services to commit slander, or to transmit classified material, or to traffic guns or drugs, far too often Google is off the hook. Section 230 makes it immune.”
“This immunity however was part of a deal. It was a trade. Section 230 — the text of it — refers to the internet as quote ‘a forum for a true diversity of political discourse.” Cruz continued to explain, “That bargain today is falling apart. Big tech continues to reap the benefit of its 230 subsidy, but the American people do not.”
One victim of the perverse nature of Section 230 is Andy Parker; his daughter Alison Parker was killed by a former colleague in August 2015 while conducting an interview for a local Virginia television station. (RELATED: Meet The Five Google Staffers Who Circulated The Petition To Drop Kay Coles James)
After her murder, Parker said video of his daughter was uploaded repeatedly onto YouTube and other platforms.
“I implored Google and YouTube to take down the footage of her murder and the related conspiratorial content. Their response was to suggest that I view and flag the content I found offensive. Instead of self-policing, they put the onus on me. In essence, they wanted me to watch my daughter’s murder and explain to a robot why it should be removed.”
Parker said volunteers have helped him identify and lobby to remove videos from Google and You Tube, “They are often stymied, even with an enforceable copyright. I’ve engaged in direct communications with Google, but while they profess a desire to help, in reality, they do nothing.”
“Thanks to section 230, Google has complete immunity and no incentive to respond.” Parker concluded.
Karan Bhatia, vice president for government affairs and public policy at Google also testified at the hearing.
When Democrat from Hawaii, Mazie Hirono, got to ask questions, she confronted Bhatia with Parker’s case. Bhatia said that videos of Parker’s murder uploaded to YouTube could be classified into two categories: hoax videos and part of news story. Bhatia said that all hoax videos were removed and only left up footage of her murder which was part of news story.
Parker’s father, who was sitting in the background during this portion of the testimony, could be seen shaking his head repeatedly as Bhatia gave his answer.
2. Bias Against Conservatives
Republicans also accused Google of a bias against conservatives, a charge Google and Democrats pushed back on.
Cruz, during his question and answer period, referred to an internal Google document entitled “The Good Censor.”
Cruz first referred to page 14 of the document, where Google acknowledges that its immunity, under section 230, is predicated upon neutrality, before referring to page sixty-five.
On page 65 it states that tech firms performed a balancing act between creating “unmediated marketplaces of ideas,” on the one hand and creating “well ordered spaces for safety and civility,” on the other.
“By censoring,” Cruz stated, still reading from the document, “and I will note this is Google’s word, censoring ‘racial and religious hatred, even when there’s no provocation to violence.’”
Cruz then referred to page sixty-seven, saying, “big tech have slowly shifted away from unmediated free speech and toward censorship and moderation.”
Bhatia downplayed the document, referring to it as a “thought experiment” by members of their marketing team.
Cruz also noted in the hearing that Google was the top contributor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 and the company’s political donations are approximately 99-1% for Democrats.
Marsha Blackburn, a Republican Senator from Tennessee, referred to an op-ed Bhatia wrote earlier where he said Google was not biased.
“Yet, you acknowledged that Google took down or limited the reach of conservative accounts and only did so mistakenly,” she said.
Blackburn also pointed out Google had been caught trying to limit Breitbart’s exposure to AdSense, Google’s advertising platform. “Google employees sought to use quote unquote what they called hate speech as a pretense for banning Breitbart from taking part,” she said. (EXCLUSIVE: Documents Detailing Google’s ‘News Blacklist’ Show Manual Manipulation Of Special Search Results)
Bhatia denied that there was political bias in advertising.
Dennis Prager was another witness in the hearing; some of Prager’s videos have been demonetized by YouTube.
Bhatia also downplayed Prager’s situation. He called Prager a “YouTube star” with over two million followers and Hirono said his videos had been watched approximately one billion times.
Bhatia said Prager’s videos are available to over 98% of YouTube and only filtered from a filter which users choose to use; less than two percent of users have this filter, Bhatia said.
He said the filter is against violent content and Prager’s ten commandment video, which was flagged, was filtered because of its reference to murder.
Hirono and the Democrats pushed back.
“Claims of anti-conservative bias are baseless,” Hirono said, citing three studies — The Economist, Media Matters, and an internal Twitter analysis — none of which found a bias against conservatives.
Dr. Francesca Tripodi is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at James Madison University and another witness; she also conducted a study which found no political bias.
“In sum, what we get from Google depends primarily on what we search and what content is served. As my research demonstrates time and again, not only does conservatism thrive online — depending on what you search, it might be the only perspective returned,” Dr. Tripoldi said in her written statement.
3. A Roadmap for Pedophiles
When Hirono gave her opening statement, she said Google’s products can help connect pedophiles to their targets.
She cited a New York Times investigation about how YouTube’s recommendations engine “served as a roadmap for pedophiles to find videos of younger and younger girls, sometimes as young as five or six years old.”
“That followed a wire report about how pedophiles use the comment sections of You Tube videos to identify and share videos of children,” Hirono added.
On this issue, there was bi-partisan agreement.
When Republican Josh Hawley, from the State of Missouri, asked questions, he suggested Google was choosing not to fix this issue.
“What is so hard about ending the automatic referral of videos featuring minors to pedophiles?” He asked.
“We have eliminated referencing — or recommending videos that contain minors in risky situations, risky conditions,” Bhatia said, suggesting that has been fixed.
Hawley also noted that Google’s comment to the New York Times for their report included the admission that removal of videos featuring children would be devastating to their business model.
4. Anti-Competitive by Controlling All Parts of Digital Content
Jason Kint, in his opening statement, painted a company in control of all aspects of digital content.
He said, “[Google] is the primary gatekeeper for any digital content business in four ways,” referring to discovery, design, data, and dollars. His argument is outlined as follows:
- Discovery — Google controls ninety percent of the search engine market
- Design — Google’s web browser, Chrome, is responsible for sixty percent of web traffic
- Data — Google’s revenue concentration ties directly to its ability to collect data in a way no one else can.
- Dollars — Google’s AdSense is a duopoly, along with Facebook, for digital advertising, Kint said.
“Google dominates the digital landscape and uses that dominance to enhance their bottom line, to the detriment of the marketplace, and most importantly, consumers,” Kint said.
Marsha Blackburn accused Google of using their search rankings to favor its own products.
“I feel like you all push the boundaries until your hand gets slapped,” Blackburn said of search result prioritization, “You have a practice, that seems you suppress competition.”