April 12, 2021

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The Technology 202: A pair of lawsuits highlight the conservative backlash against Big Tech

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“It will kill Parler’s business — at the very time it is set to skyrocket,” Parler’s suit reads.

Parler also challenged Amazon under antitrust law, saying it took unfair action against Parler while still permitting Twitter to operate, after the latter company also hosted violent content. The suit notes Twitter recently entered a multiyear dear with the cloud hosting provider. However, Twitter and Parler have taken very different approaches to moderating violent content in the last year, with Parler priding itself on its hands-off approach to monitoring such posts. 

(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Rumble, a video streaming platform that conservatives recently embraced, also filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, which owns YouTube.  That lawsuit argues the search giant is “unfairly rigging its search algorithms” to give YouTube priority over Rumble in search results. Rumble said that’s limited its viewers and advertising dollars. 

“Google, through its search engine, was able to wrongfully divert massive traffic to YouTube, depriving Rumble of the additional traffic, users, uploads, brand awareness and revenue it would have otherwise received,” the lawsuit says.

Amazon said there was “no merit” to the claims in a statement. Google said that Rumble’s claims were “baseless,” and the company intends to fight them. 

Even if these lawsuits aren’t successful, they could signal greater efforts by conservatives to rein in Silicon Valley’s power. 

Conservatives are furious with the recent moves by Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Google to muzzle the president’s digital megaphone after he incited a mob that last week violently stormed the Capitol. That could embolden them to step up efforts to regulate and even break up large tech companies, despite the fact they will no longer control Congress under President-elect Joe Biden.

Laura Ingraham, a Fox News opinion host, tweeted this morning that “It’s time for the Big Tech billionaire’s breakup” along with a photo of the CEOs of Google, Twitter, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. 

When a reporter asked over the weekend if it was time to think about breaking up those companies with antitrust actions and whether they have too much power, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) responded “Yes.” on Twitter

Both parties are emboldened to address antitrust issues in the tech industry following the online fallout of last week’s violence.

Democrats are also criticizing the tech industry’s power in recent days — raising concerns the companies did not act swiftly enough to address the violent rhetoric and disinformation spreading on their services foreshadowing the violence.

“I think the events of the past week are increasing the motivation on both sides of the aisle to move forward on addressing the power of big tech,” said Charlotte Slaiman, an antitrust attorney and competition policy director at Public Knowledge. 

Already many Democrats have called for antitrust action against some of the largest tech companies, and an investigation last year by a House committee found that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google engaged in monopoly-style tactics. 

But experts cast doubt on the lawsuits filed. 

Slaiman said it was hard to see what Parler would say was anticompetitive about Amazon’s move. “Amazon is a powerful player in cloud services, but it’s not clear to me whether they care from a competitive standpoint about social media companies.”

Amazon said in a statement to reporters that it provides technology to customers “across the political spectrum and it respects Parler’s right to determine what content it allows. 

However, it is clear that there is significant content on Parler that encourages and incites violence against others, and that Parler is unable or unwilling to promptly identify and remove this content, which is a violation of our terms of service,” the company said. We made our concerns known to Parler over a number of weeks and during that time we saw a significant increase in this type of dangerous content, not a decrease, which led to our suspension of their services Sunday evening.”

Meanwhile, experts said Rumble’s arguments were very similar to some of the competition concerns that House investigators raised in their competition report, as well as in federal and state antitrust lawsuits against Google. But experts say Rumble will have to prove it’s against current antitrust laws for Google to give its own service priority over Rumble. That’s a matter of debate among legal scholars, said Avery Gardiner, the general counsel and senior fellow for competition, data and power at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington tech group supported by Google, Facebook and Twitter. 

Now, laws change, either by judges overturning precedents or Congressional action, said Gardiner. But under current antitrust law, there is little support for the notion that a platform breaks the law if it self-preferences.”

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Facebook told employees not to wear company-branded clothes. 

The company also said not to carry company-branded items, The Information’s Alex Heath reports. The internal memo reflects growing concerns at tech companies that employees will face backlash in the wake of their moves to limit violent rhetoric after the mob at the Capitol. 

At Twitter, a companywide email was sent late last week advising employees to take care of their mental health, my colleagues Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin reported. The email also reminded them of ways to keep a low profile on social media about their employment status, according to a person familiar with the messages who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to concern about safety. 

Twitter executives said it was important to support employees who had faced threats, according to the person.

Twitter removed more than 70,000 accounts affiliated with QAnon after the Capitol riot. 

Twitter said in a blog post that it removed the accounts “to protect the conversation on our service from attempts to incite violence, organize attacks, and share deliberately misleading information about the election outcome.” The suspensions began on Friday afternoon, my colleagues Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin report. 

The company’s actions led several high-profile conservative figures to report large drops in follower counts over the weekend — or to be outright suspended from the platform. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump attorney Sidney Powell were suspended, while House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and many other GOP politicians lost followers.

“I don’t even understand what QAnon is,” said Powell in a statement. “I don’t follow it. Twitter is simply cracking down on conservatives, abusing its platform, breaching contracts, tortious interfering with businesses, and engaging in fascist suppression of truth and speech.”

Flynn didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Twitter would not comment on specific fluctuations in follower counts.

Twitter also introduced a new strike system, in which users face permanent suspension if they violate the company’s civic integrity policies five or more times. 

Facebook unveiled several additional policies, including a new crackdown against posts that reference “stop the steal” — a phrase that Trump and others have used to delegitimize the outcome of the 2020 presidential race. Ahead of Biden’s swearing-in ceremony, Facebook said it would maintain its pause on political ads and aim to monitor its service more aggressively for harmful content, as it seeks to “stop misinformation and content that could incite further violence during the next few weeks,” executives said in a blog post.

Amazon will remove merchandise related to QAnon. 

The process began yesterday afternoon and could take a few days, spokeswoman Cecilia Fan told my colleague Jay Greene. The company may revoke selling privileges from third-party sellers that try to evade the policy, Fan added. 

The policy marks a reversal for the e-commerce giant in the wake of the Capitol riot. As of yesterday morning, shoppers could purchase T-shirts bearing the “We Are Q” slogan, baseball hats with the QAnon motto “Where we go one we go all” and even onesies for babies with President Trump’s face inside the letter Q.

That merchandise remained online for days after the Capitol violence, where some supporters of the debunked conspiracy theory played a prominent role. Some of the apparel that rioters wore was similar to the offerings on Amazon. 

Amazon’s sale of such products was “alarming but not altogether surprising,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks extremism nationwide. Amazon’s approach to addressing the sale of hateful goods has been to remove them only after critics raise complaints, Greenblatt said.

“They don’t do things proactively, but when things are brought to their attention, they respond,” he told Jay. “It’s an insufficient strategy to address the virulent spread of hateful ideologies.”

European leaders slammed Twitter and Facebook’s decisions to suspend Trump. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the decisions, saying yesterday that lawmakers should set the rules governing free speech and not private technoloy companies. 

“The chancellor sees the complete closing down of the account of an elected president as problematic,” Steffen Seibert, her chief spokesman, said at a regular news conference in Berlin. Rights like the freedom of speech “can be interfered with, but by law and within the framework defined by the legislature — not according to a corporate decision.” 

Meanwhile, a French leader shared similar sentiment. . Junior Minister for European Union Affairs Clement Beaune said he was “shocked” to see a private firm make such a critical decision. “This should be decided by citizens, not by a CEO,” he told Bloomberg TV yesterday. “There needs to be public regulation of big online platforms.”

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire earlier said that the state should be responsible for regulations, rather than “the digital oligarchy.” He also called big tech “one of the threats” to democracy. 

Coronavirus fallout

Rant and rave

A key tweet from Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram:


Civil rights attorney Roy L. Austin, Jr., who focused on policing in the Obama administration, is Facebook’s new vice president of civil rights. He has a tough job ahead of him, following the company’s blistering civil rights audit last year, USA Today’s Jessica Guynn reports. 


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Cat Zakrzewski

2021-01-12 09:26:03

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