Republicans will escalate charges of anti-conservative bias against social media companies a little less than a week before Election Day when they haul the leaders of the nations’ top internet companies before a Senate committee to question how these powerful online platforms decide what content is allowed and what’s not.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai are scheduled to testify virtually Wednesday before the Senate Commerce Committee on how they moderate the posts of billions of users, including President Trump and other prominent conservative voices.
Fueling tensions are allegations by conservatives that Facebook and Twitter interfered in the 2020 election by throttling a New York Post article earlier this month that alleged ties between the Democratic presidential nominee and his son Hunter’s business dealings with Ukraine.
Tech companies deny any partisanship, saying their policies strike a balance between allowing users to freely express themselves and keeping hate, abuse and misinformation off their platforms.
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Conservatives have complained for years that social media companies systematically silence the political speech of right-leaning users despite consistent evidence that conservative voices and viewpoints dominate the conversation on these platforms.
President Trump has made social media censorship a regular talking point of his re-election campaign, drawing on anecdotal examples and sparring with Facebook and Twitter over warning labels added to his posts about COVID and mail-in voting.
With the presidential election days away, social media companies are on high alert for misinformation that could sway voters or tip the election.
Facebook says it limited the spread of the New York Post article while waiting for it to be fact-checked. Twitter blocked users from tweeting out the link to the article and from sending it in private messages. Dorsey later said Twitter was wrong to block the article.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, told Fox News last week he’s outraged by Twitter’s handling of the New York Post article but will also demand that Dorsey explain “example after example after example of anti-conservative, anti-Republican bias.”
“These are among the most powerful people in the country,” he said. “Under the current law, they get a free pass” to censor anything “they find objectionable,” Wicker said.
“In my view we should not leave it up to big tech what is objectionable and what isn’t.”
And that’s the subject of Wednesday’s hearing. Wicker and other lawmakers are threatening to narrow the protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which shields internet companies from liability for much of the content users post on their platforms and grants wide latitude in what content they remove.
“This is going to be time for members of congress to express how upset they are at big tech companies. I don’t even know how much about this is going to be about Section 230,” said Jeff Kosseff, an assistant professor of cybersecurity law in the United States Naval Academy’s Cyber Science Department and author of “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet.”
“Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?” is the hearing’s title.
On this question, there is rare bipartisan agreement. Critics across the political spectrum say Section 230 gives tech companies too much power with too little accountability.
The political right says companies remove too much content while the political left contends they don’t remove enough when it comes to election interference, hate speech and harassment, extremism and misinformation on social media.
Big Tech is fighting back. In prepared testimony for Wednesday’s hearing, Zuckerberg called Section 230 a “foundational law” that allows Facebook’s billions of users to freely express themselves and allows Facebook to keep users safe from harmful content.
“Without Section 230, platforms could potentially be held liable for everything people say,” Zuckerberg plans to testify. “Platforms likely would censor more content to avoid legal risk.”
Google’s Pichai also urged lawmakers to be cautious. “Since our founding, we have been deeply committed to the freedom of expression. We also feel a responsibility to protect people who use our products from harmful content and to be transparent about how we do that,” his prepared testimony reads. “Let me be clear: We approach our work without political bias, full stop.”
In his prepared testimony, Dorsey warns that “eroding Section 230 could collapse how we communicate on the internet.” He added: “As you consider next steps, we urge your thoughtfulness and restraint when it comes to broad regulatory solutions to address content moderation issues.”
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Kosseff says Section 230 was conceived as a “market-based law” meaning “the market determines what level of moderation people want.”
“If a platform is doing too much moderation, then people probably aren’t going to want to go there. If a platform is doing too little, people also won’t want to go there because it’s a cesspool,” he said.
A number of bills are circulating in Congress and the Justice Department has asked Congress to adopt a new law that would hold Facebook, Google and Twitter legally accountable for how they moderate content. Trump has also asked the Federal Communications Commission to rewrite Section 230.
Kosseff says it will be difficult for Congress to reach consensus on how to alter Section 230, Kosseff says.
“You have two competing views as to what platforms should be doing,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine what would satisfy everyone who is upset with the tech companies.”
Any threat to scrap the statute is going to get Silicon Valley’s attention, Kosseff says.
“Section 230 is a pretty powerful lever,” Kosseff said. “If you say to a company that depends on Section 230 that you are going to take this way unless they do x, y or z, they are probably going to probably do x, y or z.”
The Commerce Committee isn’t the only one planning on putting tech executives on the hot seat. Zuckerberg and Dorsey have been summoned to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17.