Justice Department Cites Treatment of Hunter Biden Articles in Call to Change Law Protecting Online Platforms
By Brent Kendall and Aruna Viswanatha
WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department said it was concerned that Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. restricted access to recent New York Post stories about the son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, telling lawmakers the department supported bipartisan interest in changing a law providing legal protections to online platforms.
The department made the comments Tuesday in a letter to Capitol Hill leaders ahead of a high-profile Senate hearing Wednesday in which Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey will testify.
The letter, signed by Stephen E. Boyd, the assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, said online platforms "hold tremendous power over information" and must "be honest and transparent with users about how they use that power. And when they are not, it is critical that they can be held accountable."
"For example, the decision by two social media companies to restrict access to news content of significant public interest from the New York Post, a widely distributed journalism publication, is quite concerning," the department wrote.
The letter didn't mention Facebook, Twitter or the Biden family by name, but suggested the department didn't believe such conduct is covered under the legal protections afforded online platforms and signaled a willingness to get involved in future litigation over the issue.
The New York Post's articles cited emails it said were written and received by Hunter Biden and had been provided by allies of President Trump, who trails the former vice president in polls. The Trump allies said they received the emails from a computer-repair person who found them on a laptop.
One article included a copy of an email said to have been sent to Hunter Biden apparently describing a meeting between his father and an executive at Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served. Efforts by Mr. Trump to have Ukraine investigate the Bidens and Burisma led to the president's impeachment by the House last year.
The Biden campaign has said that Joe Biden engaged in no wrongdoing and that no such meeting took place. The Wall Street Journal hasn't verified the claims made in the New York Post's articles. News Corp, the corporate parent of Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co., also owns the New York Post.
Mr. Boyd's letter comes a month after the Justice Department sent a legislative proposal that calls for Congress to curb longstanding legal protections for online platforms under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Those provisions give them broad latitude to police their sites and shield them from legal liability related to users' actions, except in relatively narrow circumstances.
The department has argued previously that platform companies must shoulder more responsibility for managing content on their sites in fair and consistent ways.
In prepared testimony for Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, reviewed by the Journal, Messrs. Zuckerberg and Dorsey said removing Section 230 immunity could make it harder for them to engage in basic content moderation to address harmful content and protect people online, though they appeared to signal openness to moderate changes.
"Our Twitter Rules are not based on ideology or a particular set of beliefs," Mr. Dorsey said in his prepared remarks. "We believe strongly in being impartial."
Mr. Zuckerberg said Facebook wanted "to be a platform for ideas of all kinds" and was ready to work with Congress on issues related to regulating "harmful content, privacy, elections, and data portability."
The Justice Department said it saw legislation as necessary to give potential victims avenues to seek recourse from online platforms and to more clearly limit the immunity they currently enjoy for the content shared on their platforms. "This broad interpretation of immunity has left online platforms free to moderate lawful content without transparency or accountability. Unfortunately, these concerns are not merely hypothetical, as demonstrated by the actions of certain platforms over the past several weeks," the letter said.
Earlier this month, both Twitter and Facebook took the unusual step of slowing the spread of the New York Post articles about Hunter Biden, saying the articles ran afoul of company policies.
Twitter initially cited the possibility that the materials had been hacked, and later said the articles also violated its policies on displaying private information like email addresses and phone numbers without a person's permission. Facebook said its actions were in keeping with rules the company announced last year to prevent election interference, especially through misinformation.
Republicans immediately criticized both platforms, saying they were engaging in censorship. Amid the backlash, Twitter soon changed its policies and apologized for how it initially handled the articles.
The Twitter account for the New York Post, which has 1.9 million followers, has been deactivated since the tech platform determined that the posts about the Hunter Biden stories violated its rules at the time of posting and began hiding those messages from users. Twitter has told the publication that its account would be reactivated once it deletes the tweets, as others who posted about the articles have done, including Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, according to a person familiar with the matter.
A representative for the Post declined to comment.
Having since altered its stance, Twitter will now allow posts about the Hunter Biden stories, but the social network is still requiring the Post to delete the messages, saying they violated its rules at the time of posting.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee last week authorized the panel's chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), to issue subpoenas to Messrs. Zuckerberg and Dorsey for their testimony on the issue, and later announced that the two men would testify voluntarily before that panel on Nov. 17, after the election.
The two tech CEOs will appear along with Alphabet Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai in Wednesday's Commerce Committee hearing about their policies for moderating content on their platforms.
Write to Brent Kendall at email@example.com and Aruna Viswanatha at Aruna.Viswanatha@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 27, 2020 18:36 ET (22:36 GMT)