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Subpoenas to Biden Agencies Over Social Media ‘Censorship’: Impact on Big Tech and Stock Market

Holocaust survivor Susan Sontag, when asked, summed up her lesson from her struggle with a simple yet profound observation that 10% of any population is cruel, no matter what, and that 10% is merciful, no matter what, and that the remaining 80% could be moved in either direction.

The above observation has not just stood the test of time; it holds true for political ideologies and economic doctrines as well, as revolutionaries and public enemies over the ages have found out to their respective triumphs and desolations.

However, in the age of information and the Internet, social media has become the new battleground for conflicting subcultures to shape narratives and influence the 80% to write a preferred version of history.

This ongoing and intensifying conflict reached another flashpoint when House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Republican Jim Jordan, subpoenaed three government agencies on Friday, April 28, as part of investigations into alleged censorship.

This has followed subpoenas sent in February to chief executives of Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL), Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN),Apple Inc. (AAPL), Meta Platforms, Inc. (META), and Microsoft Corporation (MSFT) demanding information on how they moderate content on their online platforms.

In this article, we will get into the details of the subpoena, followed by an exploration of what regional and temporal differences in the definition of appropriateness and appropriateness in the limits of free speech mean for the business prospects of big tech companies.
We conclude by contemplating how regulation and expression could coexist in an age in which almost everyone has an opinion about everything, and anyone could be offended by just about anything.

Government Versus Government

As part of the Republican-led investigation into allegations of censorship, House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan has sent subpoenas to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and the Global Engagement Center.

Documents have been sought by May 22 from the agencies to ascertain whether the federal government “pressured and colluded” with social media companies “to censor certain viewpoints on social and other media in ways that undermine First Amendment principles.”
Of late, the Biden administration has come under fire for its efforts to stave off alleged “disinformation,” especially following a series of Washington Examiner reports of the Global Engagement Center funding a group called the Global Disinformation Index that has allegedly been blacklisting conservative media outlets.

Further reports based on internal Twitter documents and communications have also claimed that the government under President Joe Biden repeatedly corresponded with employees at the company, such as ex-general counsel Vijaya Gadde, to suggest suppression of certain information.

The subpoena marks an escalation in the ongoing panel’s inquiry after House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan described the agencies’ responses to previous voluntary requests as “inadequate.” He also said that none of the agencies had produced any documents responding to previous requests to date.

The agencies, on their part, have deemed the move unnecessary, stating that they have responded to earlier requests for information within the said deadline, and they have assured to continue cooperating appropriately with Congressional oversight requests.

Implications for Big Tech

For more than two decades, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been a sanctuary and bedrock, fostering innovation in the tech industry by protecting the internet platforms from the legal liability for their users’ posts while also allowing them to decide what stays up or comes down.

However, even before the latest Congressional inquiry into allegations of censorship and collusion, this piece of legislation has been under siege from three fronts. This year the U.S. justice system, including the Supreme Court, would take on cases that would help it determine the limits of free speech.
These cases could also determine the extent to which platforms have the authority or the responsibility to promote or remove content through their algorithms. This comes amid increased pressure from legislators to diminish the protections offered by Section 230, with many Democrats wanting platforms to remove more hateful content and Republicans wanting to leave up more posts that align with their views.

A scenario in which internet platforms owned and operated by big tech companies could be held responsible for the content that’s put up or taken down while being vulnerable to political influences regarding the kind of content that could be considered “appropriate” or otherwise at a given point in space or time, could turn the Internet, especially social media, into a legal minefield or a drab, disorganized mess.

General Counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL) summarized GOOGL’s position by saying, “Without Section 230, some websites would be forced to over block, filtering content that could create any potential legal risk, and might shut down some services altogether.” She further added, “That would leave consumers with less choice to engage on the internet and less opportunity to work, play, learn, shop, create, and participate in the exchange of ideas online.”
Civil society groups also expressed concerns that amid increased pressure to ensure compliance in a risky legal field in a more nuanced way, the for-profit tech companies would find it more cost-effective to simply censor everything.

In addition to muffling a lot of underrepresented voices, an Internet that’s a virtual equivalent of Disneyland populated with AI-generated happy and politically correct content would become an echo chamber that would drive down user engagement and advertising revenues, thereby impacting profitability.
Hence, an effort to ensure survival in an environment of increased regulation could ironically result in Internet platforms shooting themselves in the foot.

(Maybe) A Middle Path?

On November 18, 2022, while reinstating controversial Twitter users Kathy Griffin, Jordan Peterson, and the Babylon Bee, Elon Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” tweeted: “New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.”

He added that Twitter would demonetize and not promote tweets containing hate speech or otherwise “negative” content. This approach is similar to the strategy employed by YouTube, a video-sharing platform owned by GOOGL, where the site’s algorithm suppresses some provocative content but is not entirely taken down.

Hence, just like it works on the rest of the Internet, users cannot see particular content or types of content unless they explicitly search for it.

The term “negative” could still remain open to interpretation and manipulation by for-profit organizations or the political ideology representing the majority worldview, and restricted visibility or access to ideas and viewpoints could induce radicalization and extremism. However, that could still be an improvement over Internet platforms swamped with compliance issues.

As parting food for thought, the Internet and society could become more open if
‘The Right To Be Offended’ is accompanied by ‘The Responsibility of Dealing With Offence Peacefully.’

This post was originally published on INO.com