Andy Parker took his battle with Google over its resistance to removing videos of his daughter’s shooting death to Washington, D.C., to ask Congress to regulate big tech companies.
At a hearing Tuesday of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s constitution-focused panel, Republicans told Google’s head of public policy, Karan Bhatia, that big tech companies are censoring political content, particularly conservative speech.
Democrats called these allegations a “baseless” conspiracy that detracts from the real problems on the internet, such as far-right videos radicalizing people, hoax videos and the spread of violent content. They said Parker’s experience is just one example.
Parker has been an advocate for gun control since his daughter, WDBJ (Channel 7) journalist Alison Parker, was shot to death on live television at Smith Mountain Lake in August 2015.
The gunman, a disgruntled former WDBJ news employee, filmed the shooting and posted it on social media shortly after killing Alison Parker and her colleague, Adam Ward, and wounding chamber of commerce official Vicki Gardner.
Videos from the gunman’s point of view as well as what was filmed by WDBJ spread across social media platforms, especially on YouTube, whose parent company is Google. They’ve also spawned conspiracy theories, such as the shooting being faked as part of a plan to seize guns.
“I recognize the First Amendment gives everyone the right to publicly speculate that the moon landing was faked, or that the earth is flat,” Parker said. “But there is a difference between someone venting about a favorite conspiracy theory and Google turning its platforms over to anonymous users for them to target and harass victims of public tragedies — the former is free speech, the latter is violence.”
Parker acknowledged lawmakers convened the panel to discuss censorship of political speech, but he asked them not to turn “a blind eye to targeted harassment over the internet.” He linked his harassment to those opposed to his gun control advocacy.
“Even though some on this committee may not agree with my cause, they must recognize that the harassment and threats of violence I faced was an attempt to intimidate me, prevent me from telling Alison’s story and speaking out against gun violence, and to silence my free speech rights,” Parker said.
YouTube and other technology platforms have faced increasing criticism for failing to police the content users post. Videos of violent attacks appear on the platforms, which have roles in publicizing violence and hosting the hate-filled ideology breeding it.
For years, it has automatically flagged pornography and copyrighted music, yet YouTube has not been able to quell the upload and spread of videos depicting violence.
Parker enlisted the help of the Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic, which contacted Google earlier this year with a list of Parker’s demands, including taking down all videos showing Alison’s death as well as prohibiting hoaxes or content that targets and harasses victims of public tragedies and their family members.
In the meantime, Parker has worked with the Honr Network, which was created by Leonard Pozner, whose 6-year-old son Noah was among the 26 people shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. The network flags videos of Parker’s daughter so he doesn’t have to view them himself.
Bhatia told the subcommittee that hoax videos about the WDBJ shooting and those violating YouTube policies have been taken down, but he said news videos remain online. Sitting behind him, Parker shook his head.
In a brief review Tuesday afternoon of videos on YouTube related to the WDBJ shooting, videos claiming the shooting was a hoax and showing Alison’s death are still available to view. Parker obtained the copyright of the video WDBJ captured of the shooting, and that video still can be found on YouTube.
Bhatia pointed to the sheer quantity of videos uploaded — 500 hours a minute seeking to be posted — and said the company is working to improve its technology to identify and take down videos that violate its policy.
“You can’t simply release the monster and say it’s too big to control,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Even as YouTube has moved to make conspiracy videos harder to find by no longer suggesting those with “borderline content” or that “misinform users in a harmful way,” Parker urged Congress to do more.
“There is an emerging consensus that this is an urgent crisis that merits an immediate public reckoning,” Parker said.
He said Congress should remove Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act so tech companies are held accountable for content they allow in their platforms.
The 26-word provision protects online platforms from liability for content users post, including tweets and Facebook posts, YouTube videos and Yelp restaurant reviews.
On the one hand, it was designed to keep the internet free of censorship. On the other hand, people like Parker become victims of harassment because they can’t make platforms take down posts or sue them for damages.
“As more and more public tragedies and horrific mass shootings occur, they will be recorded, broadcasted, and disseminated on platforms like YouTube like so much cheap entertainment for Google to use to add a few more millions to its bottom line,” Parker said.