The story which broke yesterday about possible suppression of conservative news at Facebook has taken a new and worrisome turn. Senator John Thune, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, has sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demanding he answer to a long list of detailed questions about the issue.
Thune’s decision to get the government involved is directly at odds with published statements he made as recently as 2009 calling such intervention “dangerous” and tantamount to “censorship.” Here is Thune’s comment today about the letter he sent to Facebook’s CEO:
“Facebook must answer these serious allegations and hold those responsible to account if there has been political bias in the dissemination of trending news,” said Thune on sending the letter. “Any attempt by a neutral and inclusive social media platform to censor or manipulate political discussion is an abuse of trust and inconsistent with the values of an open Internet.”
The list of questions goes into great detail about Facebook’s business practices and gives the company just two weeks to comply. Here is a sample:
1) Please describe Facebook’s organizational structure for the Trending Topics feature, and the steps for determining included topics. Who is ultimately responsible for approving its content?
2) Have Facebook news curators in fact manipulated the content of the Trending Topics section, either by targeting news stories related to conservative views for exclusion or by injecting non-trending content?
3) What steps is Facebook taking to investigate claims of politically motivated manipulation of news stories in the Trending Topics section? If such claims are substantiated, what steps will Facebook take to hold the responsible individuals accountable?
The Senator’s attempt to investigate Facebook’s news policy seems more than a bit hypocritical in light of his published views about government interference with the internet. This comes from a 2009 op-ed the Senator wrote which is still available on his website:
There are some members of Congress who have called for the reinstatement of the so-called Fairness Doctrine for talk radio and even some who want it applied to the Internet. I believe that the marketplace of ideas only operates for the benefit of citizens if it is just that: a true marketplace. People have the opportunity to seek out what radio programs they want to listen to, just as they have the freedom to read particular newspapers and magazines, watch particular news television programs, and increasingly, seek out news and opinion on the Internet.
I believe it is dangerous for Congress and federal regulators to wade into the public airwaves to determine what opinions should be expressed and what kind of speech is “fair.” This undercuts every American’s freedom of speech, and I urge my colleagues to reject any renewed institution of the Fairness Doctrine, which is nothing more than government controlled censorship.
Did Senator Thune forget that he wrote this? It should be interesting to see him explain what has changed between 2009 and now.