Representative asks internet CEOs to explain ‘absurd’ content policies

Facebook, Google and Twitter are under great scrutiny lately for their rather inconsistent approaches to moderating content on their platforms, and Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) is the latest to take them to task. Calling the results of the various undocumented policies “absurd,” he summoned the companies’ CEOs for a talk on the topic.

Citing the fact that so much activity has become concentrated on these major platforms, Rep. Pallone wrote in his letter that each has become “a quasi-governmental role policing content, and therefore a large amount of communication, on the internet.”

But as we’ve seen, the companies’ rules for what is and isn’t allowed are apparently rather fluid, and of course with millions or billions of pieces of content to inspect or filter, there are innumerable cracks through which troublesome content can slip.

With a goal of ad clicks or driving page views, these companies’ policies are not neutral; they actively shape content on the web. And to the extent that these companies’ platforms have publicly available policies for moderating content, those policies are vague and applied inconsistently. This lack of transparency makes it difficult for consumers to understand how content is controlled and for the government to oversee the market. Ultimately, algorithms and employees become the arbiters of what is acceptable content in the public forum without transparent guidelines. The result of these dynamics can often be absurd.

Rep. Pallone then cited several examples of situations where, for example, the victim of harassment is suspended from a service while her harassers are not. Or one form of hate speech thrives while another is specifically forbidden. Or, and this is something we’ve seen quite a lot of recently, the policies in question aren’t even apparent until an account or activity gets some kind of public airing, perhaps even here on TechCrunch.

To better elucidate the policies and programs in place at these various platforms, Rep. Pallone invites “Dear Mr. Page, Mr. Zuckerberg, and Mr. Dorsey” to join the House Committee on Energy and Commerce for a chat on a few of these topics.

Specifically, they plan to ask about how content moderation policies are made, enforced and monitored; how users are informed of these things; how “creators of fabricated content” are detected; and how users may appeal or otherwise affect these policies.

A spokesperson for the Committee told TechCrunch that it’s not clear yet when or if the meeting can take place (the invite just went out, after all), and whether it will be open or private is also yet to be determined. We’ll know more as the CEOs addressed make their responses.