Sen. Orrin Hatch is telling the FTC to investigate Google after Trump’s ‘bias’ attacks

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate potential anti-competitive effects in Google’s search and digital advertising practices shortly after President Donald Trump made several unfounded or false claims about anti-conservative bias on Google search.

Hatch sent FTC chairman Joseph Simons a letter today in which he expressed concern about “recent reports on Google’s search and digital advertising practices.” Hatch’s letter cites a variety of “disquieting” reports. He mentions a May 60 Minutes segment that highlighted Google’s massive size and power over other web companies, as well as a July controversy over third-party app developers who were given access to Gmail message content. He also mentioned that Google has “decided to remove from its platforms legal businesses that the company apparently does not agree with” — which could be a reference to Google blocking gun sales from its shopping platform, blocking ads from disreputable drug and alcohol treatment centers, or simply banning YouTube channels.

European Union antitrust regulators fined Google $5 billion last month for abusing its Android market dominance, and Hatch has previously asked the FTC about its interest in following up on the EU’s Google investigations. He’s far from the only lawmaker who’s critical of Google’s potentially monopolistic power. But Hatch has also defended Google against what he called the “lazy mantra that big is bad,” claiming progressive arguments for some tech antitrust cases were “more politically motivated than economically sound.”

And the timing of this letter hits extremely close to Trump’s repeated attacks on Google. Early this week, Trump claimed without evidence that the company’s search engine was artificially promoting “left-wing media” and suppressing positive stories. He later said that Google and other platforms were “trying to silence a very large part of this country,” then promoted a video that falsely claimed Google had promoted President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address but not Trump’s. While Hatch doesn’t mention any of these charges, his timing seems linked to the current added scrutiny on Google.

Ironically, Trump defended Google against the EU, calling Google “one of our great companies” and claiming European countries “truly have taken advantage of the US” with the $5 billion fine. The FTC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump says Google, Twitter, and Facebook are on ‘troubled territory’ and ‘better be careful’

President Donald Trump has made more veiled threats toward Google and other web platforms, after tweeting this morning that Google had “rigged” its search results to suppress positive news about him. Trump told reporters during an Oval Office press meeting that Google, Facebook, and Twitter were “treading on very, very troubled territory,” and that they had “better be careful, because you can’t do that to people.” Trump stopped short of describing any specific political consequences, but he asserted, “I think Google is really taking advantage of a lot of people, and I think that’s a very serious thing, and it’s a very serious charge.”

Trump made his original remarks on Twitter early this morning, apparently based on a loosely reported PJ Media article claiming that Google overrepresented liberal outlets in Google News. He didn’t give any more factual details in this afternoon’s response to a reporter, which is printed below in full.

I think Google is really taking advantage of a lot of people, and I think that’s a very serious thing, and it’s a very serious charge. And I think what Google and what others are doing, if you look at what’s going on at Twitter, if you look at what’s going on in Facebook, they better be careful, because you can’t do that to people. You can’t do it. We have tremendous, we have literally thousands and thousands of complaints coming in, and you just can’t do that. So I think that Google and Twitter and Facebook, they’re really treading on very, very troubled territory, and they have to be careful. It’s not fair to large portions of the population, okay?

Google said earlier today that “we never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment.” Trump didn’t explain exactly what complaints he had against Facebook and Twitter, although he’s previously (and spuriously) called Twitter’s moderation policy illegal, and a number of conservative lawmakers have accused Facebook of deliberately making conservative viewers’ pages less popular — again, without much evidence. Trump hasn’t apparently followed through with previous claims that he would investigate complaints about social media platforms like Twitter, but his remarks could heighten the tension as Facebook, Google, and Twitter prepare to appear before Congress next month.

Lawmakers warn ‘time is running out’ in fight against online election interference

In a Senate Intelligence hearing today about Russia-backed misinformation campaigns, chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) invoked a meme to describe Congress’ inaction on the issue. It’s as if, Burr said, Congress was “sitting in a burning room calmly with a cup of coffee, telling ourselves ‘this is fine.’”

The panel of experts at today’s hearing included directors and researchers from organizations like the German Marshall Fund, the Oxford Internet Institute, and New Knowledge. They were tasked with identifying clear and effective actions that platforms and lawmakers could take to counteract the Russian government’s efforts to infiltrate American discourse by means of social media. Over the course of two hours, it became clear that many lawmakers see interference as a nearly impossible task to conquer for both the platforms and the legislative body that could regulate them.

The panel comes on the heels of a white paper released on Monday by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), which outlined 20 possible solutions for addressing the misinformation efforts led by the Russian government and its Internet Research Association during the 2016 presidential election and beyond. Those solutions included requiring more transparency from platforms, labeling bots, and providing more data for researchers. Many of those same proposals were brought up by today’s panelists.

Today’s hearing also comes one day after Facebook revealed that the company had recently discovered “inauthentic” political social media accounts and campaigns on its platform. “Twenty-one months after the 2016 election – and only three months before the 2018 elections – Russian-backed operatives continue to infiltrate and manipulate social media to hijack the national conversation and set Americans against each other. They were doing it in 2016. They are still doing it today,” Warner said.

Lawmakers praised Facebook for disclosing the suspect accounts and shutting them down, and panelists warned that such influence campaigns may be ongoing. “We see from the IRA data how the same Russian organization will use sophisticated false personas and automated amplification, on the left and the right, in an attempt to exploit an already divided political landscape,” John Kelly founder and CEO of data analytics company Graphika said. “Our current landscape is particularly vulnerable to these sorts of attacks.”

Kelly also produced a surprising statistic: far-right and far-left bot accounts produce 25 to 30 times more posts and messages per day than standard, authentic user accounts. Committee members and panelists said that the flood of content aided in increasing the divide among the American populous with memes and posts surrounding highly emotional issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. “These types of asymmetric attacks – which include foreign operatives appearing to be Americans engaging in online public discourse – almost by design slip between the seams of our free speech guarantees and our legal authorities and responsibilities,” Warner said.

As he said in his white paper, Warner suggested that platforms adopt simple, immediate solutions like encouraging social platforms to label inauthentic accounts with tags identifying them as bots. He also encouraged the development of media literacy and educational efforts, similar to what Facebook did late last year by contacting users who had interacted with Russian propaganda on its platform. Panelists called for platforms to be more transparent with the discovery of Russian-backed accounts and to offer researchers more data in order to help predict and better control foreign attacks in the future.

Today’s open hearing was one in a series following the 2016 election from both House and Senate panels grilling tech leaders, like Mark Zuckerberg, over Russian election interference. On September 5th, members of the intelligence committee will meet with senior executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google. In that hearing, Warner and others will press the platforms to be more proactive and transparent with foreign accounts and bots in the future.

“Time is running out, frankly, and I think we have to move legislatively to set in motion a framework of disclosure,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) said.