The decision by Twitter to block the dissemination of a story on its site about Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, has added to an already heated discussion in the U.S. about whether internet companies have too much power and are making decisions that could affect the U.S. elections.
Some have applauded Twitter’s move as a stand against misinformation. Others have criticized Twitter’s decision as biased, curtailing speech in a way that could affect the outcome of the U.S. election.
In recent weeks, Twitter, Facebook and Google, the owner of YouTube, have increasingly taken steps to restrict the spread of what they describe as misinformation and extremist speech on their sites. After the 2016 U.S. election, internet companies were criticized for not doing enough to stop misinformation on their services.
This week, Twitter blocked certain accounts on its site as they tried to share a story by the New York Post that cited supposed email exchanges between Hunter Biden and a Ukrainian official about setting up a meeting with Hunter Biden’s father when Joe Biden was the U.S. vice president. The story claimed to rely on records from a computer drive that was allegedly abandoned by Hunter Biden. Rudy Giuliani, lawyer to President Donald Trump, reportedly gave the drive to the Post.
Late Thursday, Twitter updated its policy saying that it would no longer remove content that has been obtained through a computer hack and it will label tweets to provide context rather than block links from being shared on Twitter.
"We want to address the concerns that there could be many unintended consequences to journalists, whistleblowers and others in ways that are contrary to Twitter's purpose of serving the public conversation," tweeted Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's policy chief.
Links to the Post story are still blocked, reported CNBC, because the story shares personal private information.
No meeting, campaign says
The Biden campaign said it had "reviewed Joe Biden's official schedules from the time and no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place.”
"Investigations by the press, during impeachment, and even by two Republican-led Senate committees whose work was decried as 'not legitimate' and political by a GOP colleague, have all reached the same conclusion: that Joe Biden carried out official U.S. policy toward Ukraine and engaged in no wrongdoing," said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden.
No tweeting, no sharing
Citing the firm’s hacked-materials policy, Twitter blocked the Post’s ability to tweet about the story from its Twitter account. It also blocked the Trump campaign and other accounts from sharing the story.
Facebook said it reduced the reach of the post, pending fact checking from third party fact-checkers.
For Lisa Kaplan, chief executive of the Alethea Group, which tracks misinformation and online threats, Twitter’s recent decisions to block some posts are a good sign.
“I do applaud Twitter's efforts and the stances they have taken to address disinformation, making it so that people can't share a link known to be false that could have potential implications on the election,” she said. “It's an important step if they are truly going to be a source of accurate information for their users.”
The reaction from Republicans over the Post story has been swift. Senate Republicans said Thursday that they would subpoena Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, to testify next week. Dorsey should “explain why Twitter is abusing their corporate power to silence the press,” said Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican.
Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, said he had sent a letter to Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, asking them to testify at a committee hearing.
The companies’ decision about the Post stories throws fuel on an issue that has gained traction over the past year: whether companies are publishers, making editorial decisions, or “platforms,” places where people share information but with the companies providing little oversight of what’s said.
Congressional leaders of both parties are considering whether to strip the companies of some of their legal protections that say they aren’t responsible for the speech on their sites. On Thursday, Republican Ajit Pai, chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, said the agency would consider weakening the legal protections the companies enjoy.
Some Democrats as well have called for stripping the internet firms of some of their legal protections.
With the decision about the Post story, Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, says the internet firms have not moved closer to being publishers.
“If you have a business and the last thing you want is untruthful stories, then you can say, ‘We’re uncomfortable to share this with millions of people globally.’ That’s your right,” Paulson said. “I don’t think we want to mistake Facebook or Twitter for a public utility. And I don’t think a simple ban on content you believe to be unreliable and fraudulent makes you a publisher.
“A company has a right to decide what it stands for, and that’s where we are now with Twitter and Facebook,” he said.
One thing is certain: With the internet firms making decisions almost daily about curtailing or blocking posts, lawmakers and regulators will have more fodder to point to for changing the rules.