WASHINGTON – Lawmakers hammered the executives of Twitter, Facebook, Google and others at a Senate hearing on Wednesday. Republicans claimed the companies had suppressed conservative views, while Democrats accused their colleagues of holding a mock hearing for political gain.
For nearly four hours, trade committee members threw Twitter's Jack Dorsey, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, and Google's Sundar Pichai over 120 questions about social media language and the harm done by their platforms, often through the lens of their attacks Formulated elections for the next week.
But, unlike previous technical hearings, this one brought the partisan difference to the fore. Republicans attacked Twitter and Facebook for saying they censored posts by Conservative politicians and downplayed a recent New York Post article about Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr.
"Mr. Dorsey, who the hell chose you and made you responsible for what the media can report and what the American people can hear?" Senator Ted Cruz of Texas asked.
Democrats countered that Republicans had put together the hearing to pressure companies to spare them before election day.
"It's a sham," said Senator Brian Schatz from Hawaii. Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota said Republicans were politicizing "what shouldn't be a partisan issue." And Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth said they would "put Donald Trump's selfish interests before the health of our democracy."
The plays, which often dealt with screaming, meant that the subject of the hearing – the future of a legal shield for online platforms – was barely discussed. The event was billed as a discussion of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that protects social media companies from liability for their users' contributions and is considered inviolable by the platforms.
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Washington’s efforts to acquire large technology companies in recent months have been largely non-partisan. Last week, Democrats and Republicans fired a Justice Department lawsuit accusing Google of violating antitrust laws while protecting a monopoly over its Internet search service. And lawmakers from both parties have been pushing for new regulations to apply to tech companies.
However, the barbed exchange of the hearing showed that the online language debate is increasingly divided and businesses are in the middle. Of the 81 questions asked by Republicans, 69 related to the censorship and political ideologies of the tech workers responsible for moderating content. This emerges from a report by the New York Times. The Democrats asked 48 questions, mainly on regulating the spread of misinformation related to the elections and the coronavirus pandemic.
"I don't know what changes could be made that would please everyone," said Jeff Kosseff, assistant professor of cybersecurity law at the United States Naval Academy. "You see two very, very different worldviews."
The hearing on Wednesday came after months of protests from President Trump and Republican lawmakers against measures taken by tech companies to flag, remove and limit the reach of jobs. Twitter began flagging Mr. Trump's posts in May as inaccurate and glorifying violence. Mr Trump returned the favor earlier this month with an executive order aimed at removing social media companies from the Section 230 legal shield.
His allies in Congress have amassed since then, and the Republican leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee threatened to summon Mr Dorsey, Mr Zuckerberg and Mr Pichai to discuss section 230, spreading misinformation, also consented to the hearing.
Conservative claims of online censorship are largely based on anecdotal examples from right-wing commentators or lawmakers, the content of which has been moderated by social media platforms. However, many conservative personalities have built enormous audiences on the platforms, and lawmakers have provided no evidence that systemic biases have been built into the companies' products.
Oct. 28, 2020, 4:31 p.m. ET
For tech managers, appearing on Capitol Hill has become routine. Wednesday's hearing marked the fifth time since April 2018 that Mr Zuckerberg testified before Congress. It was the third time for Mr. Pichai and Mr. Dorsey. All three testified via video feeds because of the pandemic, with Mr. Zuckerberg briefly experiencing a technical error at the beginning of the event.
Mr Dorsey bore the brunt of the questions, and Republicans asked him nearly four dozen times about alleged “censorship” by conservative politicians and media. He was asked a total of 58 questions, more than 49 for Mr. Zuckerberg and 22 for Mr. Pichai.
"Mr. Dorsey, your platform allows foreign dictators to publish propaganda, usually without restriction," said the chairman of the trade committee, Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi. "Yet you usually restrict the President of the United States."
Mr Dorsey replied that Twitter was taking action against leaders around the world, including Mr Trump. "When we think about enforcement, we consider the severity of potential offline damage and act as quickly as possible," he said.
Democrats asked Mr Zuckerberg how Facebook was protecting against interference in the elections. He said the company had spent billions of dollars on election security and promised to fight back against foreign disinformation targeting the political process. He was also faced with questions about how the service combats extremism online.
Mr. Pichai was largely unharmed. Ms. Klobuchar, who proposed changes to antitrust law, asked him whether Google was too dominant.
"We see strong competition in many categories of information," said Pichai.
The attacks left little time for substantive discussion of the revision of Section 230. In one exception, Senator Deb Fischer, a Republican from Nebraska, asked Mr. Zuckerberg what changes he would like to see in Section 230 on moderation. He said he wanted more transparency on how content is moderated to build user trust.
Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, also asked tech leaders about a clause in law protecting companies from liability for restricting access to content they claim to be "obscene, indecent, lascivious, dirty, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise “hold objectionable. "She asked if they were in favor of redefining the term 'otherwise objectionable'.
All of the officers said they supported compliance with the sentence. Mr Pichai said this is important because it gives companies flexibility to act in situations that were not considered when the 1996 law was drafted, such as when children started eating detergent pods to challenge others.
Despite arguments in the hearing, Republicans and Democrats are expected to resume drumbeat in the next Congress for changes to Section 230.
Before that, Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey will likely appear before Congress again. Both have agreed to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing next month about how their companies handled election content.
The coverage was contributed by Daisuke Wakabayashi, Kate Conger, Mike Isaac and Kellen Browning of San Francisco.