US lawmakers on Wednesday pressed the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google about the content they leave up and pull down at a Senate hearing on a key internet law that has helped their businesses flourish.
Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, set the tone at the start of the hearing about Section 230, a law that shields social media companies from liability for content posted by their users and allows them discretion in moderating posts considered offensive, such as hate speech.
“This liability shield has been pivotal in protecting online platforms from endless and potentially ruinous lawsuits. It has also given these internet platforms the ability to control, stifle and even censor content in whatever manner meets their respective standards,” Wicker said. “The time has come for that free pass to end.”
Republicans weren’t alone in their criticism of the companies and concerns about the law, which is considered foundational to free expression on the internet. Democrats have targeted Section 230, saying the companies aren’t doing enough to curb the spread of misinformation and hate speech. Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said she didn’t want the hearing to hinder efforts to combat misinformation and hate speech.
Alleged partisanship by Facebook, Twitter and Google was a consistent theme of Republicans, who allege the tech firms censor conservative speech. The companies have repeatedly denied those allegations.
Concerns about censorship have increased after Twitter and Facebook took steps to slow the spread of a New York Post article about Biden’s son Hunter. In a fiery exchange, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, slammed Twitter’s Dorsey for the social media company’s move to disable links to the story, which circulated about two weeks ago. Dorsey acknowledged that Twitter had acted too quickly, a comment that didn’t satisfy Cruz.
“The New York Post isn’t just some random guy tweeting. The New York Post has the fourth-highest circulation of any newspaper in America. The New York Post is over 200 years old. The New York Post was founded by Alexander Hamilton,” the senator thundered. “And your position is that you can sit in Silicon Valley and demand of the media that you can tell them what stories they can publish.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked about the use of the social network by violent extremists groups for radicalization. He said Facebook has taken steps to combat hate speech such as banning white supremacists but agrees with concerns that the company should look at what content Facebook recommends.
Facebook, Twitter and Google said earlier during the hearing that Section 230 has helped encourage free expression while making it possible for them to moderate content. The CEOs of all three companies defended Section 230, raising concerns that any major changes could result in more removal of free speech.
Zuckerberg, who experienced connectivity issues early on in the hearing, thinks that Congress Section 230 should be updated “to make sure it’s working as intended.”
Lawmakers could make content moderation more transparent and ensure that companies can’t hide behind Section 230 to avoid responsibility “for intentionally facilitating illegal activity on their platforms,” he said.
Lawmakers eye changes to Section 230
Politicians and lawmakers have different ideas about Section 230.
Some lawmakers, including Wicker and Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, want to amend Section 230. Others, such as President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, want to get rid of the protections altogether.
In May, Trump signed an executive order asking for Section 230 to be revisited and giving the Federal Trade Commission responsibility for investigating complaints of political bias stemming from content moderation decisions by social media companies. The Federal Communications Commission is planning to move forward with regulation that would reinterpret Section 230.
He also called for the repeal of Section 230 after Twitter and Facebook took steps to slow the spread of a New York Post article about Biden’s son Hunter.
Separately, Biden told The New York Times in January that Section 230 should be revoked.
Lawmakers from both parties have introduced bills to revise Section 230. Wicker and two other influential Republicans introduced legislation in September that would narrow the scope of the protections under Section 230 to cover the removal of unlawful material, posts that promote terrorism and content that encourages self-harm.
Eshoo and Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced a bill in October that would remove legal protections under Section 230 if a company’s algorithm is used to amplify or recommend content that interferes with civil rights or posts involving international terrorism. Sen. Josh Hawley, a vocal critic of Section 230 and a Republican from Missouri, has introduced several bills on the issue including one that would allow Americans to sue tech companies that censor political speech.