Social Net CEOs Get Senate Grilling

Sen. Roger Wicker presides over big tech grilling (Image credit: N/A)

Verify and trust appears to be Big Tech's answer to threats of regulation over their moderation of content.

Social media CEOs faced a gauntlet Wednesday (Oct. 28) at a highly anticipated and hotly charged hearing whose title signaled the tenor of the exchanges with the Republican majority: "Does Section 230's Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?"

Facing that hearing gauntlet, if remotely, were Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. While all three defended Section 230, all also agreed that it was "reasonable" to hold their platforms liable for content they had created.

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Section 230 provides social media sites immunity from civil liability for how they moderate most of the third-party content on their sites, including if they take down or block content they consider objectionable. It is the current hot button issue in D.C., the subject of this hearing, and others if the House Energy & Commerce Committee Republicans and Senate Judiciary Committee majority have anything to say about it.

The CEOs focused on advocating for greater transparency and oversight, either on their own dime or with the help of government, that would show they were exercising the "good faith" content moderation that the section protects, rather than the political bias or censorship they have been accused of by Republicans. 

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Increasing trust and accountability, rather than decreasing Section 230 protection, was the thrust of their arguments.

There may have been a question mark in the title of the hearing, but Republican legislators appeared to have drawn the conclusion that their behavior has been bad and Section 230 is the culprit. "The time has come for that free pass to end," Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said of the section.

Republicans focused on the censorship of conservative speech they have long asserted. Democrats focused more on election security online than the Section 230 issue, with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) saying that the Republicans had politicized what should be a bipartisan inquiry. Ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) warned about prematurely getting rid of Section 230 and thus "squashing free speech."

Democrats also challenged the legitimacy of the hearing itself. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the hearing was meant to intimidate and browbeat the platforms in advance o an election for labeling President's tweets on COVID-19 and election misinformation. He accused the President and Republican's of planning their own disinformation campaign related to the election, including potentially saying the election was rigged or ballots should not be accepted. 

Sen. Brian Schaatz (D-Hawaii) agreed, and for the first time in his tenure in the Senate said he would not ask any questions because the hearing was a "sham" and "nonsense," a chance to bully tech CEOs into doing a "hit job" for the President in advance of the election.

Sen Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said anti-conservative bias was not a real problem, but part of the Republican efforts to bully Big Tech into leaving up harmful and misleading content.

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He also suggested that intimidation campaign included the President's withdrawl of the nomination of FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly after he criticized the Administration effort to regulate social media, and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's announcement that the FCC would, indeed, clarify Section 230 as the President had asked.

(FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was also invoked in the hearing.  Sen. Wicker pointed to some Pai tweets that drew attention to the anti-Israel sentiments that Twitter had not taken down.)

Sen. Schatz said he would be glad to participate in good faith hearings on the topic of Section 230 and other issues after the election.

Ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) focused not on Sec. 230, but on Russian election interference and using those platforms for disinformation. She said she wanted to know what could be done in terms of transparency so there could continue to be a diversity of voices without that misinformation. 

She also said privacy was another non-Section 230 issue she was concerned about.

But Cantwell said she has issues with Big Tech as a "choke point" for local news. She said too much control of the ad market by Big Tech hurts the ability of news outlets to grow in the digital age. Wicker said he shared her concerns about local journalism.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said his company was willing to take further steps to demonstrate that it is moderating content in good faith, a key to the Section 230 immunity shield and what he said was Washington's main issue with social media, but that if that shield is instead eliminated, it will remove speech from the Web.

Sec. 230 provides its shield for "good faith" moderation, even of constitutionally protected speech.

Dorsey offered up a three-part solution to the issue giving users and Washington confidence that it is moderating in good faith: 1) transparency about how decisions are made, 2) an appeals process for those decisions, and 3) more consumer control over algorithmic choices.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that the internet has been a powerful force for good, aided by Section 230 protections, which he said have been foundational in U.S. tech leadership. He said the company supported government efforts so long as they protected free access to information and warned of the potential consequences to that model of changes to Section 230.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, after technical difficulties in his remote appearance that prompted a brief recess of the committee, said private companies should not be making all the content calls without some help and guidance because there are real and reasonable disagreements over where the limits of online speech are.

Section 230 allows the removal of content that is "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable," that last one being the category that provides social media sites the most leeway to make such content line calls.

Zuckerberg said he advocated a more accountable content moderation process and that his company has already taken steps to do so.

But both Zuckerberg and Dorsey warned against limiting the "otherwise objectionable" definition. Both said that could limit their ability to remove harassing or bullying content, their ability to provide a platform where its users feel safe to express themselves, and would make people want to leave their online conversations.

Republicans pressed Dorsey and Zuckerberg on why tweets from a world leader denying the holocaust or advocating violence against Israel were left up, but tweets by President Trump had been blocked.

On that issue of social media site blocking, Wicker pointed out that these companies were the same ones advocating for net neutrality rules against blocking and throttling content, while Big Tech was doing just that online.

Sen. Klobuchar brought up the issue of algorithms driving divisive content, like conspiracy theories, to get eyeballs, as a former top Facebook executive has alleged. Zuckerberg said he did not agree with that characterization and suggested Facebook was more about connecting with your cousin. Klobuchar was not assuaged.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Silicon Valley CEOs should not get to be the referees of truth. Zuckerberg said he did not want that role. Dorsey said they were not the ref. Pichai said they did make content decisions to maximize freedom of expression.

Thune said they were not the refs and needed to be more transparent so its users could decide whether they were also being fair.

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He said, addressing the Democrats that use the "referee" analogy for social media moderation, that those companies are not, and should not be, the arbiters of truth.

Democrat Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico countered that the referee they were talking about was the U.S. government being worked by Republicans to intimidate social media.

Raising the New York Post article, Thune asked Zuckerberg to provide the committee with newspaper articles that had been limited/censored and an explanation of why. Zuckerberg said he would follow up to discuss that. Dorsey said his company was willing to discuss that and provide more information, which will lead to more accountability and transparency (which is the route the CEOS are trying to go to head off a major Section 230 remake).

Asked by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) whether Twitter had the power to influence election, Dorsey said no. Cruz asked again, saying that when it "silences and censors" information, Twitter isn't potentially affecting an election. Dorsey again said no. Cruz called the answer "absurd on its face."

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) asked the question again, and Dorsey again said no.

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During her questioning, Cantwell brought up the issue of the Big Tech "chokehold" on local news, saying that 30%-50% of ad dollars that could be going to local broadcast news was being siphoned off by Google.

Pichai said that the internet had indeed been a tremendously disruptive force, exacerbated by COVID-19, and that the net is providing alternate sources for ad revenues. But he pointed out that Google sends a lot of traffic to news publishers. He also asserted, as he has before, that Google shares the majority of revenue from their content with news publishers. Cantwell said she did not think that was the case and that while it had indeed been a rocky transition for broadcast TV news outlets, they should get fair return on their valuable content online.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.