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Memo suggests how Google and Facebook could be vulnerable to a political attack from the right

John Shinal
Memo suggests how Google and Facebook could be vulnerable to a political attack from the right

A leaked memo written by the president of a conservative lobbying group shows how the right could attack Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) and Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) over alleged political bias, according to a new report in Axios.

The report highlights a brewing battle over how much control internet providers and platforms should have when it comes to unpopular political viewpoints.

For instance, Google revoked domain registration services for the online neo-Nazi publication Daily Stormer this week, effectively kicking it off the internet until it could find a new provider. Cloudflare, which provides defense against hack attacks, also canceled service for the Daily Stormer, in a move that Cloudflare's CEO admitted could set a dangerous precedent. And Facebook reiterated that it would remove posts that celebrate "hate crimes or acts of terrorism," in the wake of a neo-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, last week.

Now, one conservative activist has floated the idea of forcing internet platform companies to declare themselves editorially neutral, or lose protection against liability for what their users post on their platforms.

The net neutrality battle

The impetus for the memo is the ongoing battle over net neutrality.

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and a Republican, is preparing to scrap rules on net neutrality put in place by his Democratic predecessor, Tom Wheeler, during the Obama administration.

The net neutrality fight pits online content providers such as Google parent Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL), Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) and Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) against broadband service providers such as AT&T (NYSE: T), Verizon Communication (NYSE: VZ) and Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA).

In broad terms, telco and cable companies argue that tech companies' web traffic uses their networks, and they'd like more freedom to set prices.

One way they could do this would be to create tiered packages or bundles of content, based on business deals with content creators — similar to the way cable networks package TV channels today — and restrict or slow access to content that isn't in those packages. Providers haven't explicitly said they want to create tiered services or packages, but they argue they should have the freedom to experiment. Wheeler's rule prevented this experimentation, they argue.

The tech giants and their allies, however, argue that all traffic should be treated equally, or neutrally, as has been the case since the beginning of the internet. The internet's innovation would be curtailed if providers could favor certain traffic, they argue.

The latter argument won the day the last time the net neutrality fight was in court, when a federal appellate court upheld the rules Wheeler put in place.

Pai's move to reverse those rules is likely to trigger another round of fights in Congress, the courts, or both.

What the memo suggests

The memo, written by Phil Kerpen of an activist organization called American Commitment, suggests that conservative lawmakers could reframe the battle over net neutrality into a larger battle over neutral speech on the internet.

"Social media (Facebook, Twitter) and search (Google) companies with dominant market position represent themselves as politically neutral while systematically promoting liberal views and limiting or even banning conservatives," begins the letter.

Right now, online platforms are protected under the Communications Decency Act from liability for material their users post. For instance, while a newspaper can be sued for libel if it prints something untrue written by a reporter, Facebook cannot be sued because a user posts something libelous.

Kerpen's memo suggests that the government should make internet companies promise that they're going to treat all content equally or lose this protection.

"Platforms that represent themselves to the public as neutral would be subject to enforcement actions if they violate those representations (of neutrality) through a consumer-protection framework."

The political calculus here seems to be that Google and Facebook would look like hypocrites if they oppose this kind of regulation while at the same time arguing for regulation of internet access providers.

"By simply proposing this framework, the Trump administration would make clear that the asymmetry of companies identified with conservative causes risking regulatory retaliation while companies identified with liberals are given a free pass is over."

Kerpen told Axios that the memo represented only "preliminary thoughts."

But it's an interesting glimpse into a possible political attack from the right on Silicon Valley companies.

Read the full letter here.

Disclosure: CNBC is owned by NBCUniversal, a unit of Comcast.

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