Big Tech Executives Defend Their Services in Senate Hearing

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter chief exec Jack Dorsey and Alphabet/Google chief exec Sundar Pichai faced a combative Senate Commerce Committee this week. Republicans want to update Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that shields Internet platforms from liability for user-generated content. They also claim the platforms censor conservative views. Democrats also want to look at Section 230 but are more focused on whether the platforms are guarding against disinformation as the presidential election looms.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, at the “testy” meeting that lasted almost four hours, the executives “expressed varying degrees of openness toward changing Section 230 but denied any political bias.” Because Twitter labeled some of President Trump’s tweets as misleading and blocked links to New York Post articles accusing Joe Biden of unproven allegations, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) dubbed the platform a “Democratic Super PAC.”

Dorsey denied he favored Democratic causes, and Twitter will “allow posts about the disputed Post articles, though the newspaper’s Twitter account remains blocked.”

Democrats addressed “how the tech companies share advertising revenue with local news publishers that rely on the platforms to reach readers,” and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) “questioned Zuckerberg over studies suggesting Facebook’s algorithms contribute to political polarization.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) warned that Iran and Russia are “making 2016 look like child’s play,” referring to online election interference, and asked if they have taken strong enough steps to stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation. The chief executives “said they have changed the way they handled election-related content and worked with publishers.”

With regard to Section 230, the tech executives said it is a tool to strike a balance between “users’ right to free expression with the need to protect public safety … though they expressed willingness to consider moderate changes, particularly around transparency and accountability.” Pichai, however, “warned of unintended consequences for businesses and consumers.” The Justice Department wrote the Senate committee that recent “episodes” prove that Congress needs to “pare back Section 230 immunity.”

The New York Times reports that Dorsey “used his prepared testimony to suggest ways Congress could change Section 230 without constraining online speech,” noting that “companies should instead be required to provide transparency about their moderation policies, while giving users a say in which algorithms rule their news feeds and allowing them to appeal moderation decisions.”

In his prepared comments, Pichai noted that Google and YouTube provide “access to a wide range of information” due to the legal framework of Section 230 and reiterated that “Google approached its work without political bias.” Zuckerberg’s comments supporting Section 230 came with the caveat that it needed major changes “to make sure it’s working as intended.”

He urged the government to legislate changes “rather than rely on the companies to decide how to govern themselves.”