What went down in today's unusual Senate hearings with Twitter, Facebook and Google
On Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey faced Senators over videoconferencing in a highly unusual hearing, just days before a presidential election, to quiz the tech companies about how they moderate content.
The hearing concluded with little resolved about the future of regulation in big tech. Democrats called the inquiry a stunt to sway voters heading into the election, and the Republicans aired perceived grievances about platforms silencing conservatives. Even still, key issues about the future of digital media were on display. Dorsey endorsed a fringe idea that is gaining steam in tech circles, to free up algorithms so platforms no longer act as sole gatekeepers.
The hearing was just the latest for the tech CEOs, all of whom have appeared before Congress in recent years. Pichai and Zuckerberg testified in the House in July, in fact, as Congress and federal regulators were discussing ways to curb the power of major internet companies. The Department of Justice and state attorneys general filed an antitrust case against Google this month.
Senator Roger Wicker kicked off the hearing by noting that the tech companies are “no longer scrappy startups operating out of a garage or a dorm room,” and they wield “immense power.”
Reasons for the hearing
The hearing was technically about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a now highly contentious clause in a longtime law that gives internet companies immunity from responsibility for content posted by others to their websites.
Last week, Republicans voted to hold the hearings, after Facebook and Twitter moderated the distribution of a bombshell New York Post report that alleged corruption in the Biden family. Facebook said when the story first hit that it would lower the volume on how many people can view it until it could be fact-checked. Twitter, meanwhile, banned sharing links to the story, but later reversed course, with Dorsey saying the company should not have blocked the story or The New York Post.
“Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report?” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas asked Dorsey.
Democrats accused Republicans of hastily scheduling the hearing to influence the election, calling it a “sham” and a “stunt.” Montana Senator Jon Tester said he welcomed more hearings on public policy topics like Section 230, but that they should not be held a week before election day. “It is crystal clear that this hearing is designed to cast doubt on the fairness of the upcoming election and to work with the platforms to allow bad information to stay up as Nov. 3 approaches,” Tester said.
“We don’t pull people to yell at them for not doing our bidding during an election,” Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii said.
Zuckerberg tried to explain the policy around the New York Post story. The story on Biden corruption has been in dispute, with some people claiming it might have originated as part of a foreign interference effort in the U.S. election.
Zuckerberg said the FBI, “alerted us to be on heightened alert of risk of ‘hack and leak’ operations.” Although, the FBI did not specifically say that the New York Post story fell under that category.
“We didn’t censor the content,” Zuckerberg said. “We flagged it for fact-checkers to review.”
Tinkering with 230
All the tech CEOs were concerned about the push to change the rules on Section 230. Lawmakers have discussed removing vague language that allows platforms to remove “otherwise objectionable” material. Zuckerberg said that clause allows Facebook to remove bullying and harassing content.
Pichai said that clause was why Google was able to act against new troubling trends that pop up in search and YouTube, like when the “Tide Pod Challenge” sent people searching for ways to consume laundry detergent in 2018. “That’s what ‘otherwise objectionable’ allows,” Pichai said.
Dorsey tried to appease Republican critics with innovative solutions, including one that was raised in a similar hearing last year. Tech guru Stephen Wolfram told the same committee last year that the platforms should open algorithms to outside third parties, allowing them to develop their own content-delivery decisions. That would leave it to consumers to decide which algorithms they want.
“Enabling people to choose algorithms, enabled by third parties, to rank and filter the content, is an incredibly energizing idea that’s within reach,” Dorsey said.
Odds and ends
Dorsey was asked about Twitter’s policies on holocaust denial. Facebook recently banned holocaust denial and conspiracy theories like QAnon. Dorsey said Twitter does not have a policy against holocaust denial.
After the hearing, Twitter was not immediately available for comment on that exchange, but the company had said earlier this month that it would ban holocaust denial.
Cruz also pressed Dorsey on whether he thought Twitter had the ability to influence elections, suggesting its moderation policies could sway votes.
“No, we are one part of a spectrum of communication channels that people have,” Dorsey said.