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VideoExecutives from Facebook, Twitter and Google testify to senators on the Commerce, Science and Transport CommitteerecognitionRecognition…Lm Otero Jose Luis Magana / Associated PressRecognition…Pool photo by Graeme Jennings
For more than two decades, Internet companies have been shielded from liability for much of their users' contributions by a once opaque rule called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Now this protective shield – and how Internet companies moderate content on their websites – is being questioned by lawmakers on both sides of the political corridor.
On Wednesday, the directors of Google, Facebook and Twitter will testify to a Senate committee about their moderation practices.
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transport Committee hearing will be a replay before Congress for Sundar Pichai from Google, Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook, and Jack Dorsey from Twitter. However, with the November 3rd elections less than a week away, executives are under additional pressure to deal with misinformation without unfairly influencing the voting process.
Although companies are responsible for protecting intellectual property and eliminating federal criminal law violations, Section 230 protects them from defamation lawsuits and other legal claims that could be costly to combat.
The law, which was seen as one of the basic rules that allowed the commercial internet to flourish, should give tech companies a wide discretion in terms of moderation and allow them to set rules about what users can post on their websites and what not. It was meant to be a practical solution that would allow people to express themselves freely online and keep companies off the hook for any comment from their users.
Republicans argue that companies – Twitter in particular – are persistent in their moderation of content and wrongly silencing conservative voices. However, Democrats argue that companies are not doing enough to keep misinformation and lies off their platforms.
In May, President Trump also issued an executive order to deprive businesses of the legal safe haven provided for in Section 230, although it was not clear what powers the administration would have to make that change.
The hearing begins at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, and the executives are expected to answer questions from 26 senators remotely. The hearing is expected to last several hours.
Mr Dorsey is likely to face the toughest questions as Twitter has been particularly aggressive in trying to review and remove posts that misinform users about the pandemic and the presidential election.
Last week, Twitter blocked a link to an article in the New York Post about Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s son, Hunter Biden, saying he was violating company policy on sharing personal information and content stolen by hackers. After an outcry from conservative leaders, Twitter reversed the decision and allowed the link to be shared.
Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Zuckerberg are expected to testify again on Nov. 17 in a Senate Justice Committee hearing that will focus on Twitter and Facebook decisions to limit the circulation of the New York Post article. Facebook took steps to reduce the spread of the story, saying it was good for fact-checking but not as aggressive as Twitter.
Recognition…Pool photo by Jonathan Newton
If Republicans and Democrats can agree on one thing, the internet giants have become too powerful and need to be held back. Many lawmakers also agree that a law should be removed from companies protecting websites from liability for content created by their users.
But members of the Senate Commerce Committee will almost certainly be making very different arguments to get their points home on Wednesday.
Republicans regularly accuse Facebook, Google, and Twitter of censoring conservative positions by flagging, reducing, and minimizing the reach of posts by Republican politicians and right-wing media figures. They have the support of President Trump, who passed an executive order this summer aimed at depriving tech companies of their safe haven under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Three Republican senators – Ted Cruz from Texas, Mike Lee from Utah, and Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee – will almost certainly accuse the Silicon Valley giants of censorship. The senators were the loudest about a perceived liberal tendency within tech companies. Some of the toughest questions and hints could be directed to Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter, to make recent decisions to remove and flag posts from Mr. Trump.
Don't expect Democrats to touch the issue of censorship. Instead, they will focus on a number of topics that point to the power problem facing internet giants. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell, the senior Democrat on the Commerce Committee, will call on companies to help local news outlets whose business models have been eroded by the rise of the internet. Expect Senators Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut to accuse Google and Facebook of monopoly behavior and advocate the need for stronger antitrust enforcement. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and Mr. Blumenthal are likely to speak about privacy practices.
Another thing to watch out for Democrats: possible signals of what will move the party forward if Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the presidential election and the Senate takes over democratic control.
Recognition…Tom Brenner / The New York Times
Conservatives have said for years that online social media platforms censor their views. However, their evidence is largely anecdotal, and conservative accounts often do very well online.
The censorship charge will almost certainly play a central role in Wednesday's hearing. Republicans like Senator Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee and Senator Ted Cruz from Texas are likely to criticize executives for how their platforms moderated content posted by conservative politicians or right-wing media outlets.
Conservatives have picked up individual cases of content moderation to claim that there is systemic prejudice against them on the platforms. In some cases, the companies have indicated that the content violates their guidelines. in other cases they have said the moderation was a mistake.
Recently, Republicans pointed to Twitter and Facebook's decision to cut back stories sharing about Hunter Biden, son of Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee for president. Twitter initially said the story violated its policy on sharing hacked information, but later reversed it. Facebook has stated that it is narrowing the reach of the story while waiting for a third-party fact checker to evaluate the claims.
In 2017, Twitter posted an ad for Ms. Blackburn's Senate campaign after the company classified her as "flammable" for a line that contained a reference to "selling baby body parts". The post violated its guidelines. A day later, the company changed its mind.
In 2016, Facebook had to answer questions from Conservatives about whether its Trending Topics section, which was run by human curators at the time, and not the algorithms running its news feed, had suppressed conservative news. The company said it had found no evidence that the allegations were true.
In none of these cases was there any evidence of systemic bias towards conservative content. A 2019 study by The Economist found that Google doesn't favor left-wing websites. Posts by commentators like Ben Shapiro are consistently among the most engaged on Facebook. Liberals have also flagged their posts or removed them from the platforms – racial justice groups, for example, have said Facebook removed their content.
Democrats have accused Republicans of making the problem of manipulating Silicon Valley companies more cautious when it comes to moderating false or misleading information from Conservatives.
"There is simply no reason to hold this hearing right before the election, other than to intimidate platforms that have historically been prone to political violence," Democrat Senator Brian Schatz wrote in a tweet this morning Month on the hearing on Wednesday.
Recognition…Pete Marovich for the New York Times
It used to be unusual for a top tech executive to face tough questions in front of the legislature on Capitol Hill. That has changed in the last few years. Now the executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter are old hands at hearings in Congress.
Wednesday's hearing marks the fifth time Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg testifies before lawmakers. the third time for Sundar Pichai by Google; and the third for Twitter's Jack Dorsey. All appearances have taken place in the past three years.
The hearings have been a boon to Washington law firms preparing the executives. WilmerHale, for example, has been on Facebook for years and has prepared Mr. Zuckerberg for all hearings since his first hearing in March 2018.
At the Senate hearing on Wednesday, the executives of Twitter, Facebook and Google will deliver a full defense of the language on their platforms, according to their prepared statements released on Tuesday.
All three executives will also strongly support Section 230, the law that has protected their companies from liability for much of the user-generated content posted on their websites – even if the law does not stay the same.
Here's a look at what every business executive might want to argue.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter's executive director, used his prepared testimony to offer suggestions on how Congress could change Section 230 without restricting the online language.
"Without Section 230, platforms could potentially be held responsible for everything people say," he said. Businesses should instead be encouraged to be transparent about their moderation policies and give users a say in regulating the algorithms for their newsfeeds so they can appeal moderation decisions, he said.
Mr Dorsey also threw a slap on Facebook, warning of sweeping new regulations. This is because "comprehensive regulations can further solidify companies with large market shares and can easily afford to scale additional resources to meet requirements," he said. "Twitter doesn't have the same breadth of interwoven products or market sizes as our industry peers."
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and its parent company Alphabet, emphasized the usefulness and value of Google in his prepared comments. Google, which sued the Justice Department last week for anti-competitive and monopoly practices, is offering services like Search, Gmail, Maps and Google Photos "for free," Pichai said.
Mr. Pichai left his defense from section 230 to the end of his prepared testimony and kept it short. He said Google and its video website YouTube could only "provide access to a wide range of information" because of a legal framework such as Section 230. He also reiterated that Google had approached its work without political bias.
"Otherwise it would run counter to our business interests and mission, forcing us to make information available to any type of person, regardless of where they live or what they believe," Pichai wrote.
Mark Zuckerberg, the executive director of Facebook, said in his prepared testimony that he supports Section 230. Without them, companies like him might have to censor more content to avoid legal risks.
But Mr. Zuckerberg also said that Section 230 needs significant changes "to ensure that it works as intended". He said that people across party lines have complained about how the law deals with content and that the government should legislate changes instead of relying on corporations to decide how to govern themselves.
"By updating the rules for the Internet, we can keep the best of it – the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things – while protecting society from greater harm," Zuckerberg said.
Mike Masnick, editor of TechDirt blog and long-time tech policy chronicler, said that while large companies like Facebook could afford the cost of complying with more restrictive updates to Section 230, smaller competitors couldn't. Like Mr Dorsey, he argued that such changes would secure Facebook's dominant position in the market.
"Make no mistake: this is Mark Zuckerberg pulling up the innovation ladder that he has climbed behind him," Masnick wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.