Facebook, Twitter, Google: Three things we learned from the latest Big Tech hearing in the Senate

·6-min read
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Wednesday. (Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Wednesday. (Getty Images)

The CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Google faced a grilling from US senators on Wednesday demanding answers on why they have flagged and censored some posts and not others, with Republicans claiming anti-conservative bias.

The hearing was scheduled ostensibly as an examination of “Section 230,” a clause in the 1996 Communications Decency Act that social media and tech giants have used over and over again in court to protect themselves from lawsuits stemming from inflammatory content users have posted on their platforms.

But senators largely used Wednesday’s hearing to launch broadsides against their political adversaries, as the US presidential election races through its final week.

The tech CEOs have stressed that they’re doing their best to prepare for an onslaught of misinformation in the last days of the campaign.

Here are three key takeaways from the latest Big Tech hearing on Capitol Hill:

1. Democrats have grown fond of the ‘illegitimate’ hearings argument

Democrats on the committee pushed back against the GOP majority’s decision to hold Wednesday’s hearing in the first place, just six days out from the US presidential election.

Not only does the Senate usually leave Washington in October of election years so that vulnerable incumbents can race across their states for one final campaign push, but Democrats have accused Senate Republicans this year of using their chamber majority to hold partisan committee hearings targeting Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

“We never do this, and there is a very good reason we don't call people before us and yell at them for not doing our bidding during an election. It is a misuse of taxpayer dollars. It's happening here and it's a scar on this committee and the US Senate,” Hawaii Democratic Senator Brian Schatz said.

Republicans for years have leveled unsubstantiated allegations of anti-conservative bias at Facebook and Twitter for flagging and suppressing stories from right-wing media. Most recently, they have raised hell about Twitter’s actions to quash any posts on their platform linking to a report from the right-leaning New York Post allegedly containing evidence of unethical and possibly unlawful behaviour by Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son.

Mr Schatz said that while he has “plenty of questions” for Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai about ways to improve Section 230 to hold Big Tech more accountable for its moderation and privacy policies, he refused to take part in a “sham” hearing.

“And so for the first time in eight years in the United States Senate, I'm not going to use my time to ask any questions because this is nonsense, and it's not going to work this time,” Mr Schatz said.

Senate Democrats used similar terms to cast an air of illegitimacy over the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett, arguing no Supreme Court nominee had ever been seated this close to a presidential election.

Tens of millions of Americans had already cast their votes for president by the time Justice Barrett was confirmed on Monday on a party-line 52-48 vote.

2. Republicans cared more about Hunter Biden than Section 230

Senator Ted Cruz caused the biggest ripples at Wednesday’s hearing with his pointed questioning of Mr Dorsey about Twitter’s decision-making regarding the Post’s reporting on Hunter Biden’s business dealings.

“Mr Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear? And why do you persist in behaving as a democratic super PAC, silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs?” Mr Cruz said, concluding his questioning of the Twitter CEO.

Donald Trump and his conservatives allies — including members of Congress — have tried to link Mr Biden to unproven allegations of “corrupt” business dealings in Ukraine and China orchestrated by his son, accusations the former vice president has dismissed as a Russian disinformation campaign.

The Trump campaign has been pushing unverified and uncorroborated stories purporting to come from emails taken from Hunter Biden’s laptop, which fell into the hands earlier this year of Mr Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.

Mr Cruz argued that as three of the primary conduits between news outlets and consumers in the US, Facebook, Twitter, and Google had an obligation not to suppress information based on political bias against a certain viewpoint.

“We’re not doing that,” Mr Dorsey bluntly replied, repeating his suggestion that lawmakers require big tech companies to publish notes on their decisions to flag or censor certain stories on their platforms to provide greater “transparency.”

Mr Dorsey denied Mr Cruz’s suggestion that Twitter has a profound impact on US presidential elections, eliciting a look of amazement from the senator.

“You’re testifying to this committee right now that Twitter, when it silences people, when it censors people, when it blocks political speech — that has no impact on elections?” Mr Cruz asked.

“People have choice of other communication channels,” Mr Dorsey said.

“Not if they don’t hear information. ... If you don’t think you have the power to influence elections, why do you block anything?” Mr Cruz fired back.

Later in the hearing, some Republicans did raise questions about curtailing Section 230’s broad language granting companies leeway to restrict access to content they judge to be “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.”

Senator Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia asked all three CEOs if they would support legislation cutting the open-ended phrase “otherwise objectionable.”

Each CEO said the would not support such legislation.

“I would worry that some of the proposals that suggest getting rid of the phrase ‘otherwise objectionable’ from Section 230 would limit our ability to remove bullying and harassing content from our platforms, which would make them worse places for people,” Mr Zuckerberg responded, saying lawmakers need to “be careful” when considering the implications of such changes.

3. Republicans don’t even know what they want

While Republicans on Wednesday’s panel railed against Mr Dorsey and Mr Zuckerberg for flagging and censoring content from conservative outlets — including several posts and tweets from Mr Trump — they did not offer any clear substantive remedies.

Mr Wicker stressed that he has yet support fully repealing Section 230.

Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner urged lawmakers to “be very careful and not rush to legislate in ways that stifle speech.”

Mr Gardner, who pollsters say is the underdog in his Senate race against former Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper, highlighted the quandary lawmakers face with regard to the law.

“I don’t like the idea of unelected elites in San Francisco or Silicon Valley deciding whether my speech is permissible on their platform,” he said.

“But I like even less the idea of unelected Washington, DC, bureaucrats trying to enforce some kind of politically neutral content moderation.”

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