A Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday about a U.S. law that shields internet companies from liability over content posted to their platforms — predictably — mainly provided a venue for GOP members to slam the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google for allegedly censoring conservative viewpoints and information.
The execs of the three tech companies — Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai — appeared via teleconference before the Senate committee.
The Republican line of attack zeroed in on Twitter’s recent move to block users from tweeting a series of unverified New York Post articles about Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. The Post stories, purportedly based on info from Rudy Giuliani harvested from a laptop abandoned in Delaware computer-repair shop, alleged that Hunter influenced his father into putting pressure on Ukraine officials to fire a prosecutor probing the energy firm for which Hunter was a board member. Another asserted Hunter tried to cut his father in on a sweetheart deal with a Chinese energy firm.
In a combative exchange with Twitter chief Jack Dorsey, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked rhetorically, “Mr. Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear?”
Dorsey responded, “I hear the concerns and acknowledge them” but denied that Twitter’s enforcement decisions favor Democratic politicians or issues. The Twitter CEO said the company blocked the Post stories because they violated its “hacked materials” policy but that the social-media network revised that policy to allow tweets that discuss hacked material and to label (instead of block) posts that link to such content.
Zuckerberg testified that Facebook took action to limit the spread of the New York Post’s initial Biden story on its platform after the FBI had warned about potential “hack and leak operations” that could be “part of a foreign manipulation attempt” in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the committee’s chairman, also challenged Dorsey by saying, “your platform allows foreign dictators to post propaganda, typically without restriction. Yet you typically restrict the president of the United States.” Dorsey acknowledged that Twitter has taken enforcement actions against President Trump, as well as other world leaders, saying that in making such decisions Twitter “consider[s] severity of potential offline harm, and we act as quickly as we can.”
Republicans have called for reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in response to the tech industry’s alleged anti-conservative bias. Many Democrats support changes to the law, but because of concerns about the spread of misinformation and hate speech online. As it stands, Section 230 allows internet companies to remove content that is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable” without being exposed to legal liability.
But some Democratic senators on the committee Wednesday complained that the nearly four-hour Senate hearing was a farce, designed to score political points and intimidate the internet CEOs into being more lenient in enforcing their content policies as they pertain to Republicans. Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) called it “a sham” and accused GOP senators of trying “to bully the CEOs of private companies into carrying out a hit job on a presidential candidate.”
Republicans had called for the hearing, which took place less than a week before Election Day, after the controversy erupted over Twitter’s blocking URLs to the NY Post story. The hearing was titled, “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?”
“This liability shield has been pivotal in protecting online platforms from endless and potentially ruinous lawsuits,” Wicker said in opening remarks. “It has also given these internet platforms the ability to control, stifle and even censor content in whatever manner meets their respective standards. The time has come for that free pass to end.”
During his opening remarks, Zuckerberg said Section 230 lets Facebook “empower people to engage on important issues” to “provide space where nonprofits, religious groups, news organizations and businesses of all sizes can reach people.” But, as he has said in the past, Facebook wants better guidance from governments about how to police content. “I believe Congress should update [Section 230] to make sure it’s working as intended,” Zuckerberg said. “When a private company is making these calls, we need a more accountable process that people feel is legitimate and that gives platforms certainty.”
Pichai, who is CEO of both Google and parent company Alphabet, denied Google discriminates based on political ideology in enforcing its policies.
“Let me be clear,” Pichai told the committee. “We approach our work without political bias, full stop. To do otherwise would be contrary to both our business interests and our mission.” He also urged the senators “to be very thoughtful about any changes to Section 230 and to be very aware of the consequences those changes might have on businesses and consumers.”
Trump has repeatedly called for the revocation of Section 230 protections for social networks that “censor” speech. In May, after Facebook and Twitter had fact-checked or removed some of his posts for policy violations, Trump issued an executive order directing the FCC to create new regulations under Section 230 that would remove the liability protections for social networks that “engage in censoring” speech or engaging in “any political conduct.”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, earlier this month announced an official proceeding to consider such a change, while critics have said the commission has no legal authority to do so. And last month Attorney General William Barr sent draft legislation to Congress that would impose new restrictions on Section 230.
It’s certainly not the last fiery scrutiny tech giants will face from Congress, regardless of what happens in the 2020 elections, as there’s support on both sides of the aisle to rein in Big Tech.
Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee issued a report summing up an antitrust probe into four Big Tech companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. The 449-page report by the Democrat-led committee urged Congress to enact new laws to curb the companies’ power, including laws that would further empower regulators to crack down on anticompetitive behavior as well as impose “structural separations” on tech giants to prohibit dominant platforms from entering adjacent lines of business.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department last week filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, alleging the search giant has abused its monopoly position to the harm of consumers and competitors. Google SVP of global affairs and chief legal officer Kent Walker called the DOJ lawsuit “deeply flawed” and asserted that the remedies it proposes wouldn’t do anything to help consumers.