I am writing to request that Congress hold a hearing to investigate Wikipedia and to allow members of the American public to testify at that hearing. Recently, Congress has held several congressional hearings to investigate Big Tech. Executives from Google, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple appeared on Capitol Hill to answer questions and face criticism over concerns relating to censorship, privacy, and antitrust. Wikipedia should also have to answer questions and face criticism relating to censorship and defamation.
Once upon a time, congressional hearings were a way in which members of Congress obtained information in order to make informed legislative policy decisions. But in an age when members are able to access that information instantaneously, what is the purpose of these hearings today? Are they still enhancing Congress’s ability to do its job? Are they serving the interests of the American people?
If committee hearings were enhancing Congress’s ability to do its job, perhaps members would attend them. While the absence of members of Congress from committee hearings is common, it wasn’t until recently that it was put in the spotlight because of Jon Stewart’s testimony during a hearing for 9/11 first responders. The former “Daily Show” host and comedian said, “As I sit here today, I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to. Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress. Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak, to no one — it’s shameful…You should be ashamed of yourselves for those that aren’t here.” I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Stewart and I am sure I am not alone.
Of course, the hearing for 9/11 first responders wasn’t front-page news. Members of Congress would have shown up in that case. A publicized hearing is more reminiscent of Kabuki Theater than a method to gather information. Every statement, every question is overly scripted. Every utterance is overly dramatic. The questions are overly partisan. To be fair to the original Japanese Kabuki Theater, its purpose is to entertain audiences. Congressional hearings aren’t held to entertain the American people, but they hardly seem to be about informing them either. They seem to be an opportunity for politicians to be in front of a camera, to generate a sound-bite, an opportunity to fundraise, or raise one’s political profile.
And who is testifying before Congress in these hearings? It is the CEOs, experts, or clients of corporations, lobbyists, and trade associations. These organizations are in constant competition to have their perspectives heard. “You want a seat at the table and that’s how you get it. You fight for it,” said William N. LaForge, author of Testifying Before Congress, who spent more than 20 years as a lobbyist. These organizations have access to key committee staff. They send invitations to events and regular emails of journal articles. Meanwhile the American public, without access, without influence, is usually left without a voice. For those of us who cannot afford a consulting firm to “fight” on our behalf, the best we can do is show up at a hearing and make a one second protest before being dragged to jail, and in the worst case scenario, scolded by a member of Congress on our way out the door for a lack of decorum as if the First Amendment didn’t exist.
Occasionally, there is someone not in the Washington circle that testifies at a hearing. In 2014, an article in The Atlantic details the story of Ruth Livier whose personal story inspired her to be an advocate for net neutrality. According to the article, Senator Patrick Leahy “heard real accounts from real people about how a free and open Internet had affected them personally” and “wanted to bring similar voices to the committee’s hearing.” I imagine Livier brought quite a different perspective from the rest of the panel of usual suspects which included a former FCC commissioner; a scholar from the American Enterprise Institute’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy; the Center for Democracy & Technology’s president and CEO; and a managing partner of a venture-capital firm.
Google’s control is unprecedented. It controls ninety percent of searches. It controls the web pages we see. The order in which we see them. And with “location history” disabled, Google still automatically stores time-stamped location data of its users. YouTube, a Google subsidiary, has been silencing creators and demonetizing videos. But it doesn’t stop there.
YouTube has partnered with Wikipedia to fact-check videos. While Wikipedia acknowledges that Wikipedia is not a reliable source, it also holds itself out to be an encyclopedia, a repository of facts. And yet, there is ample evidence that Wikipedia is extremely biased. Editors are free to remove good faith corrections by other users and then “protect” a page so only a handful of editors are able to make edits. The editors may not even be experts on the subjects of the pages they are editing. They have free rein to target individuals, professions, with whom/which, they disagree. They are able to choose sources that are not objective, take quotes from objective sources out of context, use only negative quotes from objective sources, mischaracterize sources to the point that the information leaves a false impression on a massive audience. Without intervention, individuals are being defamed with no avenue to repair their reputations or recover their losses. Congress has enabled this move towards an Orwellian nightmare. It is time to put an end to it.
I urge you to investigate Wikipedia and allow victims of censorship and defamation to testify, so their voices may be heard, like Senator Leahy did in the hearing on net neutrality. So, that “real accounts from real people” may be heard at a committee hearing. Perhaps then, a congressional hearing will offer insight, to Congress, to the American public. It will be more like a congressional hearing than Kabuki Theater.