For the biggest players, more carefully policing content would probably mean bolstering the ranks of thousands of hired moderators and facing down far more lawsuits. For smaller players, the tech industry argues, it could prove ruinous.
The vote had initially appeared to be a Republican-led effort focused on the ways that conservatives say Section 230 enables companies to silence right-wing viewpoints. Instead, the meeting highlighted broad concerns from Democrats and Republicans about the power of the internet companies, particularly their dominance over data, commerce and speech.
“Big tech are the Robber Barons of the 21st century,” said Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. “The giants we have just subpoenaed are the Standard Oil of the day. They’re bigger than Standard Oil was.”
Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota echoed Cruz’s comments: “I do appreciate Senator Cruz’s remarks when it comes to monopolies because we have seen no action in any of these areas: on privacy, on media, on making sure that we do something, something about antitrust,” she said.
She said her antitrust proposal includes “provisions that would allow our laws to match the sophisticated companies that we’re up against right now.”
In September, when the possibility that the panel would vote to issue subpoenas became public, the top Democrat on the committee, Senator Maria Cantwell, called it a “partisan effort” tied to the presidential election. On Thursday, however, she thanked Wicker for adding privacy and media to the subpoena language and voted for the measure.
The committee has previously probed issues including algorithms and disinformation on the platforms. It has also spent years struggling to produce online privacy legislation, although the lawmakers have failed to reach a compromise on the issue.
Despite the bipartisan vote, Democrats nonetheless expressed concerns with the Republicans’ political focus and the push to hear from the executives ahead of Nov. 3.
Cantwell called for “a long and thoughtful process” on Section 230, but said she wasn’t “sure that a long and thoughtful process will happen before the election.”
Alongside President Donald Trump’s administration which has sent proposals to redraw Section 230 to Congress, Republicans have put forward multiple proposals that would narrow the companies’ ability to take down political posts. Trump called for action after Twitter fact-checked some of his posts on voting.
One such proposal, from Wicker and Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, would curb tech company protections for taking down “otherwise objectionable” content, which Republicans say provides a vague fig leaf for politically motivated removals. The measure would protect companies’ taking down posts promoting terrorism, self-harm or other unlawful acts.
The companies have denied that they are biased against conservatives and argue that Section 230 protects free speech while allowing them to take down the most vile content without fear that they’ll be subject to litigation for doing so.
On Thursday, Graham’s panel was planning to mark up legislation containing provisions that Wicker and Graham backed, but he delayed the action due to a number of proposed amendments. The bills are unlikely to be passed by the House before the next Congress begins in 2021.
Pichai and Zuckerberg recently testified voluntarily before a House subcommittee looking into competition in tech. That panel is hearing from academics on Thursday about potential legislative changes. Dorsey has previously testified before Congress voluntarily as well.
Wicker’s committee will contact Facebook, Google and Twitter to try and reach agreement on the logistics of a hearing, a committee spokesperson said. While the committee voted unanimously to authorize subpoenas, they will only be issued if the CEOs refuse the committee’s requests to appear in a timely manner, the spokesperson said.