U.S. Congress spars over social media filtering; companies skip hearing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday sparred over the role of social media platforms Facebook, Google and Twitter in filtering content after representatives of the tech companies skipped a hearing.

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic//File Photo

Republicans repeatedly suggested at a House Judiciary Committee hearing that Facebook Inc FB.O, Alphabet Inc's GOOGL.O Google and Twitter Inc TWTR.N are censoring or blocking content from conservatives, a charge the companies denied.

Lawmakers from both parties agreed tech companies must remove illegal content like fraud, piracy and sex trafficking but differed on whether they should remove objectionable content.

Representative Robert Goodlatte, a Republican who chairs the committee, said he was “extremely disappointed” the companies did not testify.

Goodlatte said the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution “offers no clear protections for users when Facebook, Google, or Twitter limits their content in any way.”

Alphabet did not respond to requests for comment. Twitter declined to comment, while Facebook said it would keep talking to Congress about “Facebook’s strong commitment to being a platform for all voices and ideas.”

Goodlatte said “while these companies may have legal, economic, and ideological reasons to manage their content like a traditional media outlet, we must nevertheless weigh as a nation whether the standards they apply endanger our free and open society and its culture of freedom of expression.”

Representative Jerrold Nadler, top Democrat on the committee, said “the notion that social media companies are filtering out conservative voices is a hoax, a tired narrative of imagined victimhood.”

Nadler added “conservative commentary, including conspiracy theories of a conservative bent, regularly rank among the most far-reaching posts on Facebook and elsewhere.”

The hearing featured a pair of pro-Donald Trump sisters known as “Diamond and Silk.” Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, testified about Twitter’s decision to block her from advertising a campaign video the company called “inflammatory.” Twitter reversed the decision.

“We need to recognize that the global reach of these companies creates overwhelming pressure against free speech, and we need to do a much better job counteracting that pressure,” Blackburn said.

Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat, said the U.S. government should not follow authoritarian practices.

“What makes America great is we get to say stuff and not have the government intervene,” Lieu said. “This is a stupid and ridiculous hearing.”

Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, said “concerns about Facebook’s potential slant are best addressed through other measures, starting with transparency and user empowerment. Ultimately, the best check on Facebook’s power today is the threat of a new Facebook disrupting the company’s dominance.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by David Gregorio