With help from Cristiano Lima and Steven Overly
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— 2020 watch: Facebook and Twitter’s handling of the New York Post’s Biden-Burisma story is illustrating how tech platform’s content moderation decisions could shape the final weeks of the election cycle — and Republicans are accusing them of attempting to influence the results.
— Related Hill session: Just in time, the House Intelligence Committee is holding a hearing today on countering online misinformation.
— What’s up with WeChat?: A judge in California is holding a hearing today on the Justice Department’s request to allow the Trump administration’s WeChat ban to take effect while debates over its legality play out in court.
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FACEBOOK AND TWITTER TESTED ON N.Y. POST CONTROVERSY — Facebook and Twitter found themselves under siege on Wednesday over their handling of the New York Post’s polarizing Biden-Burisma story — a saga that has shed light on how tech platform’s content moderation calls could shape the final weeks of the election cycle.
Each company’s response quickly added fuel to longstanding allegations of tech firms perpetuating bias against conservatives. (President Trump suggested as much Wednesday night.) But the actions also led to claims that Facebook and Twitter are attempting to influence the results of the presidential election — after they’d spent years trying to prove they were not only ready for November 2020, but that they would not allow interference of any kind to occur the way it had in 2016.
— What happened: Both social media sites moved to limit the spread of the Post’s story on Wednesday, with Facebook referring the content to third-party fact checkers and Twitter blocking users from sharing links to the article in question. The companies — which for months have been taking steps to thwart election-related misinformation — stressed that such actions are standard practice for disputed or potentially harmful material, or content that violates existing platform policies. Twitter late Wednesday explained in a thread precisely which parts of the Post’s reporting violate Twitter’s rules; but CEO Jack Dorsey also acknowledged that the company’s communication around the event “was not great” and that blocking the sharing of the link to the Post story “with zero context” was “unacceptable.”
— Republican reax: “[Twitter] has plainly decided that the American people should not be seeing or discussing this particular story, which could significantly influence voters’ views of candidate Biden,” Sen. Ted Cruz wrote Wednesday to Dorsey (a similar letter went to Facebook). “This can only be seen as an obvious and transparent attempt by Twitter to influence the upcoming Presidential election.” Sen. Josh Hawley, who also fired off letters to Mark Zuckerberg and Dorsey — and plans to ask them to testify on their handling of the matter — raised with the Federal Election Commission “the possibility that egregious campaign-finance violations benefitting the Biden campaign may be playing out in real time, just weeks before the presidential election” and urged the FEC to investigate.
In the House, Judiciary Republicans — noting that Twitter had blocked users from sharing the article — posted it on its own site and encouraged Twitter followers to “click, share, and RT!” The panel’s top Republican Jim Jordan also wrote to Zuckerberg: “Facebook’s decision to affirmatively restrict the availability of election-related information—and in a manner that helps Vice President Biden avoid scrutiny—raises questions about Facebook’s commitment to free speech and free and fair elections.”
— More here on the Biden campaign’s reaction, and what’s next.
TALK ABOUT TIMELY: HOUSE INTEL TACKLES ONLINE MISINFO — The House Intelligence Committee this afternoon will hold its latest hearing devoted to countering online misinformation, a session where experts will warn that government officials and tech companies have failed to sufficiently neutralize the threat ahead of the November elections.
— On deck to testify: Wilson Center Disinformation Fellow Nina Jankowicz, Shorenstein Center Research Director Joan Donovan, Athena Group Vice President Cindy Otis and Graphika Head of Analysis Melanie Smith. The hearing will examine, among other things, “the role of social media platforms in the proliferation and deceleration” of conspiracy theories and misinformation and what private and public actors need to counter it, the panel said. Expect tech companies’ handling of the QAnon conspiracy theory to also figure prominently at the session.
— What you’ll hear: Jankowicz will testify that her research has led to an “unsettling conclusion,” according to excerpts of her written submission shared with MT: that “not only have the U.S. Government and social media platforms all but abdicated their responsibility to stop the threat of foreign disinformation over the past four years, domestic disinformation now runs rampant.” On QAnon, meanwhile, Smith will warn that its online community is already testing new tactics to “evade automatic detection and to coordinate moves to alternative platforms” to escape recent crackdowns by Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.
SECTION 230 CAN BREATHE EASY, FOR NOW AT LEAST — A Republican-led bill to pare back internet companies’ liability protections is expected to be held over for future consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee, a panel spokesperson told MT. Chair Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) Online Content Policy Modernization Act, S. 4632 (116), was slated for a committee markup this morning — right in the thick of Judiciary’s contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Despite the holdover, the bill — which combines efforts to revamp copyright and Section 230 — may still be debated at the session, the spokesperson said.
— That doesn’t mean Section 230 won’t come up otherwise: Hawley, a Judiciary member and outspoken tech critic, aired his misgivings about the protections at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing with Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. The topic gained fresh life in legal circles this week after Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court should consider reining in Section 230. But Hawley didn’t ask Barrett to give her opinion on the merit of protections themselves.
ALSO TODAY: JUDGE WEIGHS WECHAT EXECUTIVE ORDER — A Magistrate Judge is holding a hearing today on the Justice Department’s recent request to halt her ruling that prevented the Trump administration’s proposed WeChat ban from taking effect in September.
— The background: DOJ has also appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In a recent filing there, DOJ suggested that the September injunction thwarting the WeChat ban had improperly invoked the First Amendment and dismissed legitimate national security concerns about the Chinese-owned messaging app.
— The ask: DOJ is urging the appeals court to let the WeChat ban take effect as debates over its legality play out in court. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler will consider that request at today’s hearing and is expected to issue another decision by Oct. 23.
— Meanwhile, over at TikTok: “TikTok sued Wednesday to block the most onerous restrictions in an executive order President Donald Trump signed this summer as his administration tries to pressure the Chinese-owned company into taking on American owners,” Steven reports.
ORACLE’S SCOTUS CONFIRMATION CAMEO — Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) took aim at Oracle during Wednesday’s confirmation hearing for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, accusing the software company of paying groups to file amicus briefs on its behalf in its copyright fight with Google. Whitehouse said Oracle paid the Internet Accountability Project and American Conservative Union, citing figures disclosed in Oracle’s 2019 political activity report, both of which then defended the company in its pending case before the Supreme Court. He urged Coney Barrett and her prospective colleagues on the high court to demand transparency. “What you have is amicus groups that are coming in flying false flags, not revealing whose interests they’re really there to support and potentially teeing up arguments and ideas that will benefit the secret funders,” Whitehouse said.
— Oracle declined to address Whitehouse’s specific allegations. In a statement, spokeswoman Deborah Hellinger accused Google of doing the same thing Oracle is accused of. “Google sets the standard for dark-money funded amicus briefs against which all others should be measured,” she said. Oracle outlined its grievances with Google’s amicus briefs in March, noting that some backers had financial ties to the search giant. Google spokesman Jose Castaneda said Wednesday its argument attracted a wide array of supporters who “are often on different sides of various issues, but they joined together to argue for the kind of software interoperability that has enabled American innovation.”
— Meanwhile, IAP President Mike Davis called Whitehouse’s remarks defamatory. “He’s hiding behind the Speech or Debate Clause, and he should make these same accusations on the sidewalk so we can sue him,” said Davis, who also leads The Article III Project, which advocates for the appointment of Trump’s judicial nominees. Davis contends the Internet Accountability Project did not use funds from Oracle to compose its brief to avoid a conflict of interest. The American Conservative Union did not respond to a request for comment.
GOOGLE RESPONDS TO DUCKDUCKGO ALLEGATIONS — As the search giant braces for a major antitrust battle with the Justice Department, a company spokeswoman contested the assertions made by DuckDuckGo — a smaller, competitor search engine — in Wednesday’s Morning Tech. “Downloading alternative services on Android is simple, takes a matter of seconds, and there is far more choice than what our rival DuckDuckGo claims,” Google’s Julie Tarallo McAlister said in an email. “People overwhelmingly choose to use Google because it’s helpful — it provides high-quality results instantaneously and for free. DuckDuckGo’s issue isn’t that people don’t know how to use them. It’s that people choose not to.”
Zach Freed, a researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is next week joining the American Economic Liberties Project and the affiliated organization Fight Corporate Monopolies as advocacy and outreach manager. … AT&T, Facebook, Microsoft, Qualcomm and Verizon are among the founding members of the Next G Alliance, a new 6G group formed by the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions. … The Center for a New American Security launched The Gaming Lab at CNAS. … McAfee launched the McAfee Deepfakes Lab to detect and analyze potentially problematic videos and help combat election disinformation.
Prime problems: Bloomberg reports that in order to meet Prime Day demands, “Amazon has recklessly reinstated dangerous warehouse productivity quotas despite telling a judge that it was suspending them during the pandemic, workers said in a court filing.”
France escalates prospects of trade war: France’s finance minister said Wednesday that the country will in December begin collecting tax on digital companies (including Silicon Valley’s own) after international talks failed to find consensus on a global levy, POLITICO reports.
ICYMI: Google announced a partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund “to provide 20,000 students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with access to digital skills training starting in November,” Forbes reports.
Podcast OTD: The latest episode of “TBD: Technology By Design,” a podcast hosted by Facebook’s former director of public policy Matt Perault, features a conversation with Avery Gardiner, general counsel and senior fellow for competition, data and power at the Center for Democracy and Technology, on House Judiciary’s bombshell antitrust report.
Opinion: “Prop 22 Is a Dress Rehearsal for This Biden Cabinet Hopeful’s Confirmation Battle,” Revolving Door Project researcher Max Moran writes in The American Prospect about Obama veteran Seth Harris and Uber, DoorDash and Lyft’s gig economy fight.
Where are health apps used the most?: China, followed by India, Indonesia and the United States, according to the World Economic Forum (citing a Statista survey).
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