WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — Top executives of Twitter, Facebook and Google testified on social media protections and censorship issues before a Senate committee Wednesday.
Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sundar Pichai, the CEOS of Twitter, Facebook and Alphabet-owned Google respectively, appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee for a hearing on a federal internet law.
All three executives agreed to testify remotely Wednesday after being threatened with subpoenas. The committee took an unplanned brief break when Zuckerberg had technical difficulties connecting virtually, bringing a moment of levity to the start of the hearing.
Reflected in their written testimonies, the company leaders defended Section 230, a provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, as legislation that’s critical to free expression on the internet.
Section 230 gives social media companies permission to moderate and regulate content on their platforms without being legally responsible for the information they host. It also gives the tech giants permission to remove lawful but objectionable posts.
Twitter’s Dorsey warned the committee that eroding the foundation of Section 230 could significantly hurt how people communicate online. Pichai said the company operates without political bias.
“We approach our work without political bias, full stop,” Pichai said. “To do otherwise would be contrary to both our business interests and our mission.”
“Undermining Section 230 will result in far more removal of online speech and impose severe limitations on our collective ability to address harmful content and protect people online,” Dorsey said.
Pichai appealed to lawmakers “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.”
Zuckerberg said he supports changing the law and that Congress “should update the law to make sure it’s working as intended” but also warned that tech platforms are likely to censor more to avoid legal risks if Section 230 is repealed.
All three CEOs agreed the companies should be held liable if the platforms act as a publisher.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the Commerce Committee chairman, said that the liability shield has protected companies from “potentially ruinous lawsuits” but added: “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.”
Democrats peppered the CEOs with questions on the spread of misinformation, the proliferation of misleading political ads on the platforms, other content that can incite violence or keep people from voting. Many Democrats also questioned the timing of the hearings with Election Day nearing.
President Donald Trump called for the repeal of Section 230 earlier this month, after Facebook removed his post comparing COVID-19 to the seasonal flu. Twitter flagged the president’s post with a warning about “misleading and potentially harmful information.”
Trump and other Republican lawmakers have raised the question of whether social media companies are afforded too much freedom in how they restrict content. They also raised with the executives an array of allegations of other bias on the platforms regarding Iran, China and Holocaust denial.
Several Republicans have accused the tech companies, without evidence, of deliberately suppressing conservative, religious and anti-abortion views.
The allegations this month came after Facebook and Twitter acted to limit the dissemination of New York Post articles relating to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Dorsey stated during the hearing that the company “recognized an error in this (hacked materials) policy, specifically the enforcement” and that the New York Post can log into their account, delete their original tweet and essentially retweet the link. Repeatedly, the Twitter CEO stated the company needs to work on transparency and earning trust of its users, and the goal of their policy is to add context not “straight blocking” of URLs.
“Twitter’s conduct has by far been the most egregious,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas in his questioning of Dorsey. Cruz cited Twitter’s limitations on the newspaper story as part of “a pattern of censorship and silencing Americans with whom Twitter disagrees.”
“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,” Cruz said.
Dorsey told Cruz that he does not believe that Twitter can influence elections because it’s only one source of information. He tried to steer senators away from conventional notions of political bias, noting that “much of the content people see today is determined by algorithms.”
“This is bullying,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, told the CEOs. “Do not let U.S. senators bully you into carrying the water” for politicians seeking to discredit their opponents. With their questions, Schatz said, the Republicans “are trying to bully the heads of private companies into making a hit job” on political leaders.
“Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said over a week ago. “But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”
Wednesday’s hearing is titled “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?” Senators aim to examine whether the federal law “has outlived its usefulness in today’s digital age.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce panel, said the hearing would have been better if held in January after the Nov. 3 election. Cantwell questioned whether big tech platforms pose a threat to the local news industry, detailed in a report released Tuesday.
Read the company leaders’ prepared statements below:
The Associated Press contributed to this report.