Google Bows to Feinstein’s Russian Media Rant, and ‘Censorship Creep’ Descends on Silicon Valley

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, outdoors, in dark sunglasses, inspecting damage from California wildfires; debris can be seen in the background, behind a soldier in camo fatigues whose face is mostly obscured by Feinstein
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, shown here inspecting fire damage in California in October 2017, has warned the tech industry to address foreign meddling -- or else. (Army National Guard photo by Capt. Will Martin via Flickr)
European-style censorship threatens to undermine the First Amendment as U.S. internet giants cave to political panic on multiple fronts.

Who’s afraid of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein?

Google, for one.

In a Cato Institute opinion piece, John Samples, the libertarian think tank’s vice president, lambastes the tech giant for engaging in “censorship.” Samples says Google buckled to pressure from California’s senior senator and her colleagues by vowing to “de-rank” the Russian-owned news agency Sputnik and the Kremlin-funded international news channel RT (formerly Russia Today).

Samples focuses on comments made November 18 by Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia.

color image of two men in suits, seated in chairs in studio setting in Halifax, Nova Scotia
Eric Schmidt (left), CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, at a Q&A session moderated by Jonathan Tepperman at the 2017 Halifax International Security Forum (screenshot via Facebook Live)

There, in response to a reporter’s question during a question-and-answer session, Schmidt said Google is working on “de-ranking” the two Russian propaganda sites on its search engine and news feed.

But Schmidt insisted Google doesn’t want to ban either site outright.

“That’s not how we operate,” he said.

Instead, Google is “trying to engineer” its systems to prevent the sites from appearing in news feeds and Google alerts. And Google would be “de-ranking those kinds of sites” in Google search by tweaking the company’s powerful algorithm.

Feinstein’s Fury

That sounds like an about-face from Google’s previous position on RT as explained by Kent Walker, the company’s senior vice president and general counsel, during a November 1 hearing before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

The hearing addressed Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In addition to Walker, the general counsels for Facebook and Twitter attended.

All three had to eat ample portions of crow as senators pointed fingers and bloviated about how their companies were to blame for a foreign government’s alleged misuse of their platforms.

The 84-year-old Feinstein sounded practically apocalyptic in her remarks to the tech reps, calling evidence of Russian influence in the 2016 election “a cataclysmic change” and “the beginning of cyber warfare.”

She also warned the men that it’s incumbent upon them to come up with a solution — or else. “You’ve created these platforms, and now they are being misused,” Feinstein scolded. “And you have to be the ones to do something about it. Or we will.”

Feinstein’s widely quoted admonition became the theme of the hearing. And when Feinstein got her crack at Walker, she homed in on RT.

Feinstein pointedly asked Walker why Google hadn’t taken action against RT back in January, after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an intelligence assessment on Russia’s shenanigans. The report detailed a Kremlin-funded “influence campaign” that involved both RT and Sputnik and aimed to undermine the 2016 U.S. elections .

Feinstein seemed to think Walker should have treated this government document like a dictate from a supreme power and behaved accordingly.

Walker replied that the question of RT’s influence “goes beyond the internet,” because the channel is seen worldwide on cable and satellite TV and advertises in “newspapers, magazines, [and] airports.”

Significantly, Walker said, RT complies with Google’s terms of service.

“We have carefully reviewed the content of RT to see that it complies with the policies that we have against hate speech, incitement to violence, et cetera,” he explained. “So far we have not found violations, but we continue to look. Beyond that, we think that the key to this area is transparency — that Americans should have access to information from a wide variety of perspectives, but they should know what they’re getting. So we already on Google provide information about the government-funded nature of RT. We’re looking at ways to expand that to YouTube and potentially other platforms.”

Google owns YouTube, and RT’s YouTube channel has more than 2.2 million followers. In 2013, RT became the first YouTube account to surpass 1 billion pageviews.

Additionally, Google’s rankings of RT’s and Sputnik’s sites affect how many people see links to those sites when they pop up (or don’t) during a Google search.

Google also has leverage over news outlets through its Google News aggregator, Google News’ RSS feeds, and Google Alerts, a feature that allows users to select topics and receive emails containing links to relevant articles.

A First Amendment Violation?

John Samples concedes that Google has “broad power to police its platform,” but he believes the company’s decision to de-rank RT and Sputnik is a response to the shellacking that Walker and his fellow general counsels endured at the hands of Feinstein and her fellow legislators.

As for Feinstein’s ultimatum, Samples concludes that it may be evidence of a First Amendment violation.

In responding favorably to this bullying cry for censorship, Google appears to have politicized its platform in order to forestall political punishment.” — John Samples

“It is difficult to interpret this as anything but a threat,” he writes. “If Google, and others, failed to quash RT using tools constitutionally prohibited to Congress, Congress would yoke them with onerous regulation. Google has now responded with the de-ranking. Of course, we lack a document where Mr. Schmidt says something like, ‘To avoid unspecified harms by Congress, Google must change our search function.’ But the context and timing of the hearings and the de-ranking make a persuasive case for coercion.”

The First Amendment still covers RT, observes Samples, even though RT registered with the U.S. government as a foreign agent at the insistence of the Department of Justice.

Moreover, courts have ruled that the First Amendment protects Google’s ranking system as a form of editorial control, Samples notes.

“In responding favorably to this bullying cry for censorship, Google appears to have politicized its platform in order to forestall political punishment,” he writes.

Google isn’t the only tech player attempting to put daylight between itself and Russia’s propaganda machine.

For instance, the week before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Twitter announced that it would no longer take ads from RT or Sputnik.

‘Censorship Creep’

When Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt responded to questions in Halifax later in November, the 45-minute chat was wide-ranging.

In response to questions — some posed by moderator Jonathan Tepperman, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, others by audience members, Schmidt spoke about “ranking” with the passion of a computer geek.

“I am very strongly not in favor of censorship,” he said at one point. “I’m very strongly in favor of ranking. It’s what we do.”

Yet, as Tepperman observed, YouTube recently pulled tens of thousands of videos of the U.S.-born Islamist extremist Anwar al-Awlaki, whose online sermons and lectures inspired many a jihadi here and abroad.

Ever since a U.S. drone strike killed al-Awlaki in 2011, activists, politicians, and government authorities have pressured YouTube to remove the videos.

Color image of a bearded man in white robe and turban, seated cross-legged on a couch with an open book in front of him
YouTube has pulled videos of sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-educated jihadi who was killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011 (Muhammad ud-Deen [retouched] via Wikimedia Commons)
Schmidt said the company reviewed the al-Awlaki videos in response to complaints regarding terms-of-service violations.

“Perhaps it was overdue,” he said of the removals.

Commentators hailed the al-Awlaki purge as a “watershed moment,” in that YouTube had previously insisted on being content-neutral, except under the most extreme circumstances.

Schmidt characterized the new approach as part of a maturation process for the company and for the tech world as a whole.

“Ten years ago I thought that everyone would be able to deal with the internet because the internet, as we all knew, was full of falsehoods as well as truths…. But now faced with the data, from what we’ve seen from Russia in 2016 and with other actors around the world, we have to act.”

Schmidt said his company had shifted from the “general American view that bad speech will be replaced by good speech” to one that regards the internet as a place where speech can be weaponized by bad actors.

He spoke of more aggressively wielding the terms of service (TOS) agreements, which users enter into by default on Alphabet’s platforms. These terms permit the company to remove content it finds to be illegal or objectionable.

The interval between complaint and takedown of offending content is “about a minute and a half,” Schmidt told Tepperman.

Schmidt says Alphabet is working on a filter that uses both artificial intelligence and human review to catch violations before they’re shared, so that “the publishing time of evil content is exactly zero.”

Schmidt’s move from that “general American view” on free speech to this new, zero-tolerance approach to “evil content” is an example of what a recently released Cato Institute analysis calls “censorship creep.”

The analysis, authored by University of Maryland law professor Danielle Keats Citron, cautions that Silicon Valley is moving toward a more European conception of free speech — one that isn’t as free as the American version.

Writes Citron:

To stave off threatened European regulation, tech companies have retreated from a strong free speech stance. In May 2016, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube…signed an agreement with the European Commission to “prohibit the promotion of incitement to violence and hateful conduct.”

The agreement defined “hateful conduct” as speech inciting violence or hatred against protected groups. Under the agreement, [the four companies] pledged to remove reported hate speech that violated TOS within 24 hours. The European Commission was given the right to review the companies’ compliance with the agreement.

“Because TOS agreements apply everywhere that platforms are accessed,” Citron argues, “the changes will affect free expression on a global scale.”

In other words, the concession amounts to the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent.

Now European politicians are pushing for bans on “fake news,” among other content they deem objectionable.

Moreover, in response to European criticisms that social-media companies aren’t removing hate speech with sufficient alacrity, the four companies went even further.

Citron reports that the big four recently rolled out plans for a database of censored content that will be shared across the industry.

What, you may ask, is stopping any or all of this from washing up on American shores (aside from the First Amendment)?

Not much, as it turns out. In her paper, Citron suggests strategies U.S.-based companies can employ to guard against “censorship creep.”

But there’s no guarantee the tech giants will take those steps.

And the tide is steadily rising.

Click this link to follow the Cato Institute on Twitter.

Click the link below to read John Samples’s commentary:

“Censorship Comes to Google”

Click this link to download Danielle Keats Citron’s policy analysis:

“What to Do about the Emerging Threat of Censorship Creep on the Internet”

Additionally, a livestream of the Nova Scotia conference is available via the Halifax International Security Forum’s Facebook page. The chat session with Schmidt begins at about 1:06:00.

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