VIDEO: Rubio Presses Facebook, Twitter on Upholding American Values When Dealing With Authoritarian Governments
Washington, D.C. – At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) raised inquiries with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey on the requests of authoritarian governments to crack down on freedom of expression.
In August, Senator Rubio led a bipartisan group of senators in sending a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai that expressed grave concerns about Google’s reported plan to launch a censored version of its search engine in China that would prohibit websites and search terms objected to by the Chinese government and Communist Party. In July, Rubio urged Google and Facebook to deny the Vietnamese government access to sensitive user data following the enactment of a new cybersecurity law in Vietnam.
A rough transcript of Rubio’s exchanges is below:
RUBIO: I want to thank you both for being here. First of all, there’s an empty chair next to you from Google. They’re not here today and maybe it’s because they’re arrogant or maybe it’s because there’s a report that as of last night—this just posted at 3:36 yesterday—this group went on basically pretending to be Kremlin-linked trolls. They used the details of the Internet Research Agency which is a criminal Kremlin link troll farm and were able to buy ads online and place them on sites like CNN, CBS This Morning, Huff Post, Daily Beast, so I’m sure they don’t want to be here to answer these questions but I thank you both for being here.
I was happy to read in your opening statements, Ms. Sandberg, that you talked about our democracy, our democratic process. You acknowledge responsibility for protecting our process and you talked about our adversaries, clearly linking the company to the values and the importance of this country. And I think an acknowledgement that your company would not exist were it not for in the United States because of the freedoms that we have. Twitter didn’t go as far but you did, describing yourself as a global town square, but you did say that you want to support free and open democratic debate. You did refer to our democracy and you did say that Twitter was built on the core tenet of freedom of expression which is a very important core tenant. Here’s why this is relevant: because we’re here today because we learned and we’ve learned the hard way that social media that was largely seen as a tool for incredible good, also what makes it good can be manipulated by bad actors to do harm and that’s what’s happened. We’ve all learned that the hard way. And so what we’re asking you to do and I think what you’ve agreed to do is to use the powers that you have within your platforms to crack down on certain users who are hostile actors, who are using disinformation or misinformation or hate speech for the purposes of sowing discord or interfering in our internal affairs and that’s a positive.
Here’s the problem though, and we have to start thinking about what happens when an authoritarian regime asks you to do that because their definition of disinformation or misinformation could actually be the truth. Their discord or what they define as discord would be things like defending human rights. Interfering in their internal affairs they would define as advocating for democracy, and the reason why I think that answering that question is so important because it’s going to define what your companies are. Are your companies really built on these core values or are they global companies like all these other companies that come around here who see their number-one obligation to make money and therefore market access irrespective of what the price they have to pay to do so.
So, for example in 2016, the New York Times reported that Facebook was working on a program to restrict stories from showing up in news feeds based on the user’s geography. The story implies, and I know that hasn’t been implemented, but it implies that that was being used in order to potentially try to get back into China but any authoritarian government could try to use that tool. Vietnam, by the way where you do operate, has a new law beginning on 2019 January 1st that will require you to store user data inside the country and handover that data to the government of users suspected of anti-state activity, including spreading news that may impede Hanoi or hurt the economy, for example democracy activists.
Twitter has a policy of accommodating countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression by selectively blocking tweets and accounts. For example, one of the countries you comply with is Pakistan, has asked you to block sites for blasphemy. The blasphemy – 647 cases of blasphemy over a 10-year period from ‘86 to 2007. 50 percent of those cases were on non-Muslim of Pakistanis in a country three percent non-Muslim. One high-profile case is Asia Bibi who has been sentenced to death after a personal dispute over drinking water with a group of women. They accused her of insulting the Prophet, she’s arrested, imprisoned sentenced to death. Not relevant to Twitter but relevant to the blasphemy laws that Pakistan has asked you to comply with.
Turkey has requested that you block over 12,000 accounts since 2014. You’ve blocked over 700, many of them are journalists. One of them is an NBA player, Enes Kanter. Russia blocked almost 80 accounts as of last check. You complied with that. One of them was a pro-Ukrainian account in 2014. And so here’s why all this is relevant.
I guess the first question for Facebook is … these principles of our democracy, do you support them only in the United States or are these principles that you feel obligated to support around the world?
SANDBERG: We support these principles around the world. You mentioned Vietnam, we do not have servers in Vietnam and with very minor exceptions of imminent threats that were happening, we’ve never turned over information to the Vietnamese government including political information.
RUBIO: And you never will?
SANDBERG: We would not.
RUBIO: You would not agree to do so in order to operate?
SANDBERG: We would only operate in a country when we can do so in keeping with our values.
RUBIO: And that would apply to China as well?
SANDBERG: That would apply to China as well.
RUBIO: Thank you and on Twitter how does blocking the account of journalists or an NBA player in keeping with the core tenet of freedom of expression?
DORSEY: Well, we enacted a policy some time ago to allow for per-country content takedown. Meaning that within the boundaries of that nation, the content would not be able to be seen, but the rest of the world can see it. And that’s important because the world can still have a conversation around what’s happening in a market like Turkey. And also we have evidence to show that a lot of citizens within Turkey access that content through proxies and whatnot as well. So we do believe and we have fought the government, the Turkish government consistently around their requests and often times won—not in every case—but often times have made some moves. So we would like to fight for every single person being able to speak freely and to see everything but we have to realize that it’s going to take some bridges to get there.
RUBIO: Well because a Twitter spokesman in response to a BuzzFeed article, I think about two years ago, here’s the quote defending this policy said, “Many countries including the United States have laws that may apply to tweets and our Twitter account content.” And then you went on to say what you’ve said “in our continuing efforts to make services available to users everywhere etc.” You would agree that there’s no moral equivalency between what we’re asking you to do here and what Turkey has asked you to do or other countries have asked you to do in that same realm?
DORSEY: We do have to comply with the laws that govern us within each one of these nations but our ideals are similar and our desires.
RUBIO: Whose ideas are similar?
DORSEY: The company’s.
RUBIO: Are similar to who?
DORSEY: Are similar to how we were founded and where we were founded in this country.
RUBIO: I guess my point is, you’re not arguing though that. What we’ve at what we’re asking you to do here on disinformation against foreign efforts to interfere in our elections is the same as what Turkey or other authoritarian regimes have asked you to do abroad against upon political opponents of theirs? They’re not morally equivalent, these two things?