The government of President Donald Trump warned on Wednesday of a possible legal offensive against big technology companies over competition or political bias, in an explosive announcement that occurred while social network executives defended their policies before lawmakers.
The Justice Department statement appeared to intensify in a war between the administration and Silicon Valley after a series of Trump attacks that alleged that technology firms were biased against conservatives.
According to the statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called a meeting of attorneys general at the end of this month "to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be harming competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms."
Suggestions for legal or regulatory action surprised many observers in the technology industry and occurred when lawmakers held hearings on foreign influence campaigns on social media and "transparency."
Daniel Castro, from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said the purpose of the statement was not clear, but that it was worrisome.
"Social media platforms have the right to determine what types of legal discourse they will allow on their platforms," Castro told AFP.
"The federal government should not use the threat of law enforcement to limit the right of companies to exercise this right, in particular, the application of the law should not threaten social media companies with unfounded investigations."
Regulation or censorship?
Legal analysts have noted that the government would have few recourses against any political bias, even if it is demonstrated due to constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression.
While antitrust concerns against Google and Facebook are expected, Eric Goldman, of the High-Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, said it would be problematic to use antitrust law as a way to regulate speech.
"This (statement) makes me think that antitrust is not the real goal, that the real objective is censorship," Goldman said.
"This could be a broad government action to try to subvert the First Amendment."
Matt Schruers, of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a business group that includes Google and Facebook, said that technology firms "compete aggressively with each other and with those outside the technology sector" and that "consumers have many options for information services. and news. " online sources. "
The administration's statement came at the end of a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing where Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey and Facebook operations director Sheryl Sandberg testified.
The audience offered a largely collegial atmosphere in which executives and senators spoke of the need for greater efforts to thwart foreign influence campaigns on social networks.
Dorsey said the courier service was set up to function as a "public square," but could not deal with "abuse, harassment, troll armies, propaganda through bots."
"We are not proud of how that free and open exchange has been armed and used to distract and divide people and our nation," he told senators.
"We are unprepared and poorly equipped for the immensity of the problems we have recognized."
Sandberg echoed Facebook's thanks for not taking decisive action against influential campaigns from Russia that interfered with the 2016 US presidential election.
"We were too slow to detect this and too slow to act," Sandberg told the panel. "That is in us, this interference was completely unacceptable, it violated the values of our company and the country we love."
Lawmakers welcomed the comments but expressed concern about whether enough was being done.
"If the answer is regulation, let's have an honest dialogue about how that looks," said Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the committee.
Senator Mark Warner said at the hearing that social media companies "were surprised by the brazen attacks of our election" and added: "I am skeptical that, ultimately, you will be able to truly face this challenge on your own. . "
Google was invited to attend the Senate hearing, but refused to send its executive director, Sundar Pichai, or Larry Page, the director of its parent company, Alphabet.
In a written statement, Google's legal chief, Kent Walker, pledged to maintain efforts to thwart foreign interference in US elections.
The Senate was followed by a session of the House panel on "transparency and accountability," where Dorsey rejected claims of political bias.
"Twitter can not serve as a public square if it is based on the personal opinions of its creators," he told the panel. "We believe that a key driver of a prosperous public square is the fundamental human right of freedom of opinion and expression."
Outside the audience in the Senate, right wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones criticized technology companies for curbing their efforts on social media.
Jones, whose Infowars site has been praised by Trump, denounced what he called "a plan to dismantle the conservatives, as well as communist China," adding, "this is dangerous, authoritarianism."