Shareholders in Google and YouTube are pressing the tech giants to disclose any requests they have received from the Biden administration to scrub politically "problematic" information from the platforms, according to a copy of a shareholder proposal obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
The National Legal and Policy Center, an ethics watchdog group that holds a voting stake in Google and YouTube's parent corporation Alphabet, submitted the shareholder proposal to the company this week, following a string of controversies over Google and YouTube's removal of videos that question the Biden administration's COVID-19 policies.
The proposed disclosure requirement could shed light on whether the administration has directed tech companies to remove information that it deems misleading, a scenario that raises concerns about government censorship. In July, the White House said it was "in regular touch" with social media platforms to discuss ways to combat "misinformation" online.
"The case for this kind of disclosure is double barreled. All citizens should be aware when the government engages in censorship, even if it is through a private-sector company, and shareholders of that company should know when they become a party to it," said NLPC chairman Peter Flaherty.
"The administration keeps labeling certain information about the pandemic 'disinformation,' and gets it yanked off social media, only to later embrace the same information. Alphabet should not be contributing to such a farce."
If the proposal is approved by a shareholder vote—a significant hurdle since the company's voting shares are largely controlled by its founders and insiders—Alphabet would be required to "provide a report, published on the company's website and updated semi-annually—and omitting proprietary information and at reasonable cost—that specifies the Company's policy in responding to requests to remove or take down material from its platforms by the Executive Office of the President, Centers for Disease Control, or any other agency or entity of the United States Government," according to a copy of the NLPC's submission.
Alphabet would also have to disclose "an itemized listing of such take-down requests, including the name and title of the official making the request, the nature and scope of the request, the date of the request, the outcome of the request, and a reason or rationale for the Company's response, or lack thereof."
The NLPC said coordination between Alphabet and the Biden administration could amount to "unconstitutional censorship, opening the Company to liability claims by victims," citing Supreme Court rulings "that private entities may not engage in suppression of speech at the behest of government, as it has the same effect as direct government censorship."
YouTube faced criticism this week after deleting a controversial but widely shared video of Joe Rogan's interview with virologist Robert Malone that criticized the COVID-19 vaccine. Florida governor Ron DeSantis (R.), Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.), and Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R., N.Y.) have blasted Google and YouTube for scrubbing their videos that questioned certain Democratic policies, such as mask mandates and vaccine passports.
Google has also acknowledged manipulating its autofill feature to discourage users from searching for claims that COVID-19 originated from a lab in Wuhan—a theory that was later determined to be credible by intelligence officials.
In July, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that the administration was "in regular touch with these social media platforms, and those engagements typically happen through members of our senior staff, but also members of our COVID-19 team, given, as [Surgeon General] Dr. [Vivek] Murthy conveyed, this is a big issue of misinformation, specifically on the pandemic."
Psaki said the administration flagged "problematic" posts for social media companies and urged the platforms to "take faster action against harmful posts."
Alphabet is likely to seek a waiver from the Securities and Exchange Commission to avoid bringing up the NLPC's proposal for consideration. Under the Biden administration, the SEC has taken a supportive stance toward left-leaning activist shareholders. In November, the administration expanded the type of proposals that companies are required to consider to include "certain proposals that raise significant social policy issues."
In 2021, progressive shareholder activists successfully installed three fossil fuel opponents on the Exxon Mobil board, after forcing the company to disclose its impact on carbon emissions in 2017. The past year also saw a record number of corporate board diversity proposals from activist shareholders.