Senate Commerce Investigation Reveals How Big Tech Weaponizes Terms of Service to Silence the Right

April 24, 2024

Companies cancel web-based services for high-profile conservatives over their mainstream takes on transgender ideology 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This week, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee under Ranking Member Ted Cruz released an investigative report showing how online service providers are weaponizing their terms of service to deny conservative organizations access to essential business technology. The investigation showed how Big Tech employed a roadmap—written by left-wing activists at the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League—to de-platform conservative organizations for supposed “violations” of broadly-written terms of service agreements.  As a result of these sudden and unappealable removals, conservative groups lost out on thousands of dollars in revenue and access to important services used for advocacy and business development.

As written in the report’s executive summary:

Over the past several years, an alarming, widespread phenomenon has developed. Woke companies, from social media platforms to banks, and payment processors to restaurants, have used their structural power to silence conservatives and deny them access to goods and services the companies readily make available to liberal Americans […]

Though the reasons these companies give to justify their actions vary—the content posted on the platform is “hateful,” “disinformation,” or contains “hacked material”—the result is the same: conservatives are discriminated against and silenced […]

The Committee investigated episodes where Online Service Providers cancelled services for conservative organizations. This investigation revealed that Online Service Providers are following a new playbook for silencing conservatives that leftist organizations—including the notoriously biased Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Anti-Defamation League (ADL)—concocted: “removing infrastructure services” that conservative organizations “need to operate” by weaponizing their terms of service […]

That Online Service Providers’ discriminatory policies may force organizations to make this choice is a problem. The free flow of information through freedom of speech is the bedrock of our democratic republic. Organizations, such as those discussed in this report, therefore serve a critical role by contributing to discourse on important topics, like whether biological men should participate in women’s sports. Yet without access to the Online Service Providers’ services, they may be unable to do so.

The ideal solution is for market forces to correct Online Service Providers’ discriminatory policies. If Online Service Providers continue to cancel conservative organizations, it should create a new demand for Online Service Providers that service the conservative market. This demand, however, cannot develop unless Online Service Providers are transparent about their political discrimination.

Investigation highlights:

The report details: Slack’s removal of Libs of TikTok’s workspace from its platform; Eventbrite’s removal of listings for events featuring Riley Gaines and showings of Matt Walsh’s ‘What Is a Woman? documentary; and how a major nonprofit technology services provider, Bonterra, terminated its relationship with Independent Women’s Forum. During interviews conducted by the Committee, these companies repeatedly admitted they used comments and context found separately from the banned conservatives’ use of their services.

In response to why they suspended Libs of TikTok’s account, Slack told the Committee: 

“What makes [Libs of TikTok’s posts] problematic… is that Libs of TikTok has a specific audience, and they are taking this information and posting it to that specific audience so that everyone in that audience sees it at the same time.”

Slack therefore indicated that its primary concern with Libs of TikTok’s posts are that they target a conservative audience, not that its posts—which again, are predominately reposts of liberal accounts—are themselves problematic.

Again, Slack could not point to an instance where Libs of TikTok made a post calling for violence or harm against anyone. Meanwhile, the Committee’s investigation revealed that numerous groups that actively engage in and encourage violence may still be using Slack’s platform.  For example, there is and  Those are groups that have attacked people and called for violence.

Eventbrite admitted to the Committee that no one involved in the decision watched the What Is a Woman? film before cancelling the events. Nor could they point to anything specific in the trailer that was objectionable.

According to Eventbrite: “[t]he overall tone and message of the all-encompassing trailer, in combination with Matt Walsh’s related public statements, helped determine the removals—not any individual timestamp.” Eventbrite also removed Riley Gaines’ event from its website. Again, Eventbrite did not consider the event page in reaching this conclusion. Instead, Eventbrite made this determination based on three of Gaines’s social media posts. The report also reveals how other events that appeared to violate Eventbrite’s Community Guidelines remained on the site.

During the investigation, Bonterra told the Committee that Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) violated the Bonterra-EveryAction policies because it “works to restrict the rights of the LGBTQ community.” The Committee was not able to find any instance where IWF advocated for hate, discrimination, or violence against anyone. Yet Bonterra continues to power fundraisers for the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Institute for Palestine Studies—two organizations that put out statements celebrating Hamas’s October 7, 2023 terrorist attack on Israel.  

Key report findings:

1. Online Service Providers provide important products and services that organizations and businesses rely on to operate—often in markets with only a few providers of such services. As a result, when an Online Service Provider terminates or denies service to a user, the user often struggles to find a replacement.

2. Online Service Providers establish broad, vague, and ill-defined terms of service, which include some type of “anti-hate” provisions that maximize their flexibility when denying and terminating services.

3. Online Service Providers apply their terms of service not only to users’ activity on their platform, but also users’ activity outside of it.

4. Online Service Providers often employ teams of employees who investigate potential violations of the terms of service. In investigating potential violations, those employees review users’ actions outside of the Online Service Provider’s platform.

5. Online Service Providers often rely on left-wing groups, like SPLC and ADL, when deciding which users to deny access or services.

6. Online Service Providers employ unfair procedures when they terminate or deny services based on a violation of the terms of service:

a. Although Online Service Providers sometimes specify which terms of service provision a user violated, they do not explain how the user violated that provision. Therefore, even when there may technically be an avenue for users to challenge terminations or denials, there is no effective way to do so.

b. The Online Service Providers usually do not provide advance notice of the terminations, forcing banned users to scramble to find an alternative service and interrupting the users’ operations.

7. These factors combine to chill conservative speech and hobble organizations that advocate for conservative values.

The report concludes with the following recommendations:

1. Legislation requiring Online Service Providers to publish the standards, including detailed definitions of all key terms and phrases, they may employ to deny or cancel services.

2. Legislation requiring Online Service Providers to provide written notice to a user when refusing to provide a service or cancelling a service based on the user’s violation of the terms of service. This written notice must specifically identify the users’ actions that violated the terms of service. The Online Service Providers must also request the user’s permission to post the refusal or cancellation on its public website and do so if the user gives that permission.

3. Legislation requiring Online Service Providers to publish an annual report on their public websites outlining actions taken to enforce their terms of service. This report must include the number of instances that the Online Service Provider denied or cancelled service based on the terms of service, and, for each instance, the specific provision that was violated, as well as the source for the alert of the violation.

Read the full report HERE.