Presidents of Google, Twitter and Facebook grilled in Senate hearing

Chiefs of Google, Twitter and Facebook grilled in Senate hearing. Ted Cruz yelled. His Democratic colleague Brian Schatz called the consultation where he was speaking “a sham.” Committee chair Roger Wicker couldn’t pronounce the last name of Google’s CEO. Just another day on Capitol Hill for Big Tech.

In a contentious hearing on Wednesday, the CEOs of Facebook (FB), Google (GOOG) and Twitter (TWTR) were questioned by Senators on the Commerce Committee over their content moderation arrangements. Some lawmakers demanded more transparency while others sought explanations on a couple of explicit cases in which content was removed or labeled by platforms. Though the conference was meant to focus on a critical law, known as Section 230, that protects the companies’ ability to moderate content as they see fit, Senators strayed from the brief and confronted the executives on other topics, including antitrust, misinformation about voting and election interference.

Schatz and other Democratic senators slammed the timing of hearing, which comes not exactly seven days before the US election. “This is bullying and it is for electoral purposes,” Schatz said. “Try not to let the United States Senate bully you into carrying water for those who want to spread misinformation.”

Cruz furiously went after Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, pressing him on the platform’s decision to restrict content posted by the New York Post. He concluded by shouting at Dorsey: “Mr. Dorsey, who the hellfire elected you and put you responsible for what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear, and for what reason do you persist in behaving as a Democratic super PAC quieting perspectives to the contrary of your political beliefs?”

Cruz also asked Dorsey if Twitter can influence elections, to which Dorsey answered “no,” adding that his platform is part of a “spectrum of channels people have.”

Sen. Ron Johnson seized on Dorsey’s statement later in the meeting, asking “Mr. Dorsey, do you still deny that you don’t have the ability to influence [and] interfere in our elections?” Dorsey affirmed his answer.

Republicans also repeatedly pointed to Twitter’s inaction on tweets from Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as an approach to illustrate, in their view, the lopsided application of the company’s moderation arrangements. “It’s strange to me that you’ve flagged the tweets from [President Trump], but you haven’t hidden the Ayatollah’s call to clear Israel off the guide,” Sen. Cory Gardner said. Right off the bat in the consultation, Dorsey defended the inaction, characterizing the Ayatollah’s tweets as “saber-rattling” that doesn’t violate Twitter’s arrangements.

The consultation came as social media companies have been bracing for an onslaught of misinformation. In recent days, Facebook and Twitter have both taken action to slow the spread of some content, bringing about allegations of bias, censorship and even election interference. The tech CEOs and several lawmakers appeared by video.

Wicker opened Wednesday’s hearing by slamming the tech companies for an “apparent double standard” that disadvantages conservative content on social media. Wicker said that Section 230, which shields tech companies from litigation over their content moderation decisions, must be changed. “The time has come for that free pass to end,” he said.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the committee, said she hoped Wednesday’s hearing would not cause a “chilling effect” on tech companies’ efforts to reduce misinformation, particularly around the election and Covid-19.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the company approaches its work without political bias, “full stop.” “To do otherwise would be contrary to both our business interests and our mission, which compels us to make information accessible to every type of person, no matter where they live or what they believe,” Pichai said.

In his opening remarks, Dorsey said restricting Section 230 could stifle startup innovation and further the strength of large tech companies. Dorsey proposed that Section 230 be expanded to require that companies provide away from of their content moderation decisions, a “straightforward” appeals process and the ability for consumers to pick the algorithms that present social media content.

The companies have invoked the federal law – Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – in one court case after another to dismiss potentially costly lawsuits over messages, videos and other content created by users.

Under Section 230, “interactive computer services” are considered legally separate from the users who generate their content. They can’t be said to publish or “speak” the expressions of their users. In practice, courts have repeatedly accepted Section 230 as a defense against claims of defamation, carelessness and other allegations.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg highlighted the importance of Section 230 in his opening remarks, but said lawmakers have a role to play in determining what content is acceptable, too, and that’s the reason he’s called for increased regulation in the past. Zuckerberg said Facebook appears to be “fair and consistent” in its strategies and decision submitting in the midst of questions from both parties that the company doesn’t moderate its platform appropriately.

In a video released ahead of the meeting, the Commerce Committee highlighted what it says are instances of social platforms’ actions against conservative accounts, for example, Twitter labeling a tweet from Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, saying the media he shared included “potentially sensitive content.”

Independent studies of social media have discovered little credible evidence to suggest that the technology is biased against right-wing viewpoints.

Attacks on Section 230 have escalated in recent days as Facebook and Twitter limited the distribution of a progression of articles by the conservative-inclining New York Post that claimed it obtained “indisputable evidence” messages about Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, and his dealings in Ukraine. CNN has not determined the authenticity of the messages.

Facebook said it decided to “reduce distribution” of the article “pending fact-check review” as part of its policy against “misinformation.” Twitter later blocked users from tweeting connects to the principle story as part of its policy against spreading “hacked materials,” despite the fact that it wasn’t evident whether the underlying messages attributed to Hunter Biden were hacked, copied, or fabricated.

US authorities are investigating whether the recently published messages are connected to an ongoing Russian disinformation effort targeting the former vice president’s campaign, a US official and a congressional source briefed on the matter said.

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