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Sen. Cruz: Big Tech Censorship is Marked in Darkness and Obscurity

Calls into question the lack of transparency by big tech companies on alleged censorship of conservative social media users

February 28, 2019

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, participated in a hearing on Wednesday entitled, ‘Policy Principles for a Federal Data Privacy Framework in the United States.’ In the hearing, he questioned a panel of experts on what actions internet and technology companies are taking to increase their transparency on known biases against conservatives on their respective platforms.

“Both this committee and the Judiciary Committee on which I also sit have repeatedly asked tech companies [for] even basic, bare bones data in terms of how many speakers on their social media platform are they silencing and to what extent are they engaging in shadow banning. And shadow banning, by its nature, has been reported to be a process where a particular speaker is silenced but that speaker doesn’t know it because they send out a tweet, they send out a post, they appear to be communicating and yet the tech platform does not allow those -- including those who have affirmatively opted in and chosen to hear that speaker -- simply doesn’t allow them to hear that speaker and those words, that speech goes into the ether. […] And what is deeply frustrating is they have never once, to my knowledge, answered the question: are they doing it? To what extent is it widespread? To what extent is it politically targeted? How do they assess who they will silence? That is a degree of power handed to a handful of tech billionaires in California to monitor and police and put not just a thumb but all five fingers, a fist, and their foot on the scales of political discourse.”

Sen. Cruz has been a leading defender of free speech and has consistently asked big tech companies to provide transparency on their censorship processes. Last spring, he questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on his company’s censorship of conservatives, and last fall questioned Google executive Keith Enright on the search engine’s biases towards right-of-center content.

Watch Sen. Cruz’s full line of questioning here. Excerpts are below:

Sen. Cruz: “One of the most frustrating things about dealing with the question of tech censorship is that it is all marked in darkness and obscurity. There is no transparency whatsoever. Both this committee and the Judiciary Committee on which I also sit have repeatedly asked tech companies [for] even basic, bare bones data in terms of how many speakers on their social media platform are they silencing and to what extent are they engaging in shadow banning. And shadow banning, by its nature, has been reported to be a process where a particular speaker is silenced but that speaker doesn’t know it because they send out a tweet, they send out a post, they appear to be communicating and yet the tech platform does not allow those -- including those who have affirmatively opted in and chosen to hear that speaker -- simply doesn’t allow them to hear that speaker and those words -- that speech -- goes into the ether.

“And what is deeply frustrating is they have never once, to my knowledge, answered the question: are they doing it? To what extent is it widespread? To what extent is it politically targeted? How do they assess who they will silence? That is a degree of power handed to a handful of tech billionaires in California to monitor and police and put not just a thumb but all five fingers, a fist, and their foot on the scales of political discourse. 

“Let me ask this committee, a six-piece study I think is a good, potential tool. I see other potential tools. I think the Department of Justice ought to be looking at this question very closely. But let me ask the panel: if the objective is more transparency, knowing what in fact the tech companies are doing and to what extent they are engaged in active, systematic, deliberate, biased censorship, what tools does Congress have or the executive branch have to ensure more transparency?”

Mr. Beckerman: “Senator, transparency is important and there always can be greater levels of transparency. I will say that these platforms seek to serve all Americans regardless of political views and are open platforms to do so.”

Sen. Cruz: “Out of curiosity, based on what? Because I can tell you when Facebook testified before this committee and I submitted questions to Facebook about the extent to which they were censoring people. They essentially refused to answer those questions. And I asked Mr. Zuckerberg before this committee if Facebook had ever once silenced people on the left or if it was only people on the right and he was unable and refused to answer those questions either. So sort of an amorphous commitment to everybody in the universe when some people are being silenced and others are not. That rings a little hollow.”

Mr. Beckerman: “Each platform has a different set of community standards that perhaps we could do a better job of making it clearer and more transparent of what they are. And certainly, mistakes are made sometimes with voices on the right but mistakes are often made with voices on the left.”

Sen. Cruz: “Can you give an example?” 

Mr. Beckerman: “Not off the top of my head.”

Sen. Cruz: “Nobody else can either. That’s the lack of transparency. Right there. And one debates these issues using anecdotes. Anecdotes are not a very good way to debate an issue but the reason you’re forced to use anecdotes is because there are no data, there is no evidence, there are no objective numbers because of the lack of transparency. Thank you.”

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