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Google attacked over limits on internet company liability

Google is being accused of manipulating YouTube and its search results to censor conservatives.

US senators used a Congressional hearing on Tuesday to push the idea of overhauling a law that protects YouTube, Facebook and other internet services from being sued for the content users post.

The Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing, led by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, featured accusations Republicans have been making for months: that Google manipulates search results and its YouTube video service to censor conservatives. Google policy chief Karan Bhatia denied this and said it would be bad for business if users didn’t trust the company to be impartial.

What was new is that Cruz, fellow Republican Senator Josh Hawley and Democrat Richard Blumenthal attacked part of a 1996 law that helped internet companies thrive. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act exempts online services from liability for user-generated content. There have been rising calls to re-examine this after Facebook, Twitter and YouTube failed to control harassment and other toxic content and behaviour on their services.

Section 230 was weakened last year for situations involving sex trafficking. Cruz said on Tuesday that the provision should not apply to internet companies that don’t remain politically neutral.

Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, told Bloomberg Government that Section 230 was put in place to protect smaller, developing internet services, not giant tech companies. “I don’t think they’re developing anymore so it probably could stand to be reviewed,” she said.

Bhatia said Google was doing all it could to take down offensive content on YouTube but that the sheer volume of videos it hosts means some offending material always slips through. He said Google never uses political ideology as a reason to block or take down videos on YouTube or remove information from search results.

“You can’t simply unleash the monster and say it’s too big to control,” Blumenthal said while questioning Google’s Bhatia.

Hawley also said that if Google was willing to censor search results in China, why wouldn’t it do the same in the US? Google pulled out of China in 2010 because of pressure from the government to censor search results. A new initiative to go back into China, dubbed “Project Dragonfly,” has been shelved after outcry from employees, activists and politicians.

Bhatia’s two-hour grilling yielded little in terms of new information from Google. Some Senators chided him for evading questions and not having more information at hand.

“You’re doing something remarkable,” Cruz said. “You’re managing to be less candid than Mark Zuckerberg.”

Zuckerberg, the chief executive officer of Facebook, testified in Congress last year.

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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