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Lawmakers take aim at Big Tech’s business model, engage in yes-or-no duels

US lawmakers on Friday, March 26, Philippine time, appeared far less patient in yet another grilling of Big Tech executives – the first since the US Capitol siege on January 6. 

Do the executives think they had a hand in the growth of the Stop The Steal movement? Do they think they are exempt from liability when they run ads with false information? Are they willing to redesign their platform systems and algorithms to fix their “dangerous” content recommendations, the spread of conspiratorial content, and the addictiveness of the platforms? 

The lawmakers demanded a one-word answer for these questions – a yes or a no – and often interrupted them whenever the tech executives started out on a longer explanation, brushing off the answers as nothing but hot air. 

“Do you know the difference between yes or no?” asked Rep. Billy Long. “We don’t do filibusters in the House. That’s something that’s done in the Senate,” Rep. Anna G. Eshoo told the executives, as Google CEO Sundar Pichai began to explain whether the company would amend YouTube’s recommendation engine that served users content similar to what they’ve already consumed. 

Eshoo called YouTube’s content recommendation system as “dangerous” and a “serious” issue – one that sends users down what has come to be known as a YouTube rabbit hole. It’s a system that keeps users on the platform, providing the views for the ads that fuel YouTube’s business model, but one that could also lead to radicalization, and the reinforcement of biases and beliefs that may run counter to established fact. 

SUNDAR PICHAI. Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies during a remote video hearing held by subcommittees of the US House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee

Handout via Reuters

The democrat directed a similar question to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “Your algorithms use unseemly amounts of data to keep users on your platform because that leads to more ad revenue. Now businesses are in business to make money. But your model has a cost to society. The most engaging posts are often those that induce fear, anxiety, anger, and that includes deadly, deadly disinformation.” 

She said they are planning a bill that would ban this type of user data-fueled surveillance advertising. 

“Are you willing to redesign your product to eliminate your focus on addicting users to your platforms, yes or no?” 

“I guess that’s a no,” she interrupted Zuckerberg who had started with an explanation. 

Banning accounts, and taking down posts are merely treating symptoms, Eshoo said. And while these are important to pay attention to, she said that it’s the business model that’s the disease, it’s the “targeted ads that enable misinformation to thrive.” 

Rep. Kathy Castor took aim at the business model as well, saying that they “employ manipulative methods to keep people cemented to the platform, often amplifying discord, and it boosts your bottom line.” 

Castor also said that they enjoy an “outdated liability shield” – Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which protects platform owners from liabilities caused by content posted by platform users – that only incentivizes them to take “half-measures” while they make billions, and harm truth and democracy. 

Rep. Frank Pallone expressed frustration over the companies’ continued deflection of accountability, especially with regards to their role in allowing radical groups to grow. 

“You definitely don’t think that you’re actively, in any way, promoting this misinformation and extremism. I totally disagree with that. You’re not passive bystanders. You’re not non-profits or religious organizations that are trying to do a good job for humanity. You’re making money.” 

Pallone asked Zuckerberg if he was aware of one research showing that Facebook’s group recommendation system had effectively facilitated the radicalization of a large number of members in one group in Germany. “Are you aware of it, yes or no?” The CEO grappled with words as the representative pressured him for a straight answer, before eventually admitting that he'd seen it. 

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who often had the more curt answers, found some time to release some steam over their inability to explain their position. He posted a “?” tweet, along with a yes-or-no poll, referencing the situation at the House.

The grilling put the tech companies in a vulnerable position just as lawmakers are expected to make amendments to Section 230 protections and establish new regulations – regulations that the companies would, to various extents, likely attempt to lobby for in their favor. –

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.