Big Tech CEOs Try to Save Their Business From Senators’ Anger Over Content Moderation

Mark Zuckerberg, Chairman and CEO of Facebook. Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday to defend the way their platforms moderate content under current law.

Specifically, lawmakers and the CEOs will discuss Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, commonly known as “Section 230,” a statute that since the 1990s has provided social media platforms immunity from their users’ posts while allowing them to moderate those posts, including removing violent or misleading content. President Donald Trump threatened to revoke the rule last spring as he raged at what he perceived as unfair censorship over his misinformation-laden posts.

Concerned with tech companies’ growing power in making their own rules about what content can be seen on their platforms, several lawmakers on the Commerce Committee propose to change the law, although Democrats and Republicans are divided on how it should be changed.

Republicans overall think that tech platforms are unfairly targeting conservative speech and seek to narrow the types of content tech companies can moderate, while Democrats say those companies are not removing enough harmful content.

See Also: Zuckerberg Tells Congress Facebook Isn’t a Monopoly, Cares About Disinformation

Republican members on the Senate Commerce Committee proposed a reform bill, called the Online Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Act, that would lay out specific categories of content tech platforms would be protected from moderating instead of leaving it up to the companies to determine what they find to be “objectionable.”

“They do things they know they ought not to do, and they push it until we slap their hands,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee. “And then they kind of come back around and they calm down, then they go back to trying to push it a little bit more. So by doing this, what they’ve done is to turn that shield, which was a very transparent shield, they’ve made it very opaque. And they hide behind saying, ‘These are our community standards.'”

In an interview with CNBC ahead of the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said the Republican bill is not “sufficiently targeted to the specific wrongs or harms that they want to stop.” And Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, said she hoped Wednesday’s hearing would not cause a “chilling effect” on tech companies’ efforts to reduce misinformation.

Below is what each tech CEO has to say about Section 230.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey

In a prepared statement, Dorsey argued that weakening or removing Section 230 could harm how people communicate online, lead to more speech removal on the internet and limit social media platforms’ ability to address harmful content.

“We must ensure that all voices can be heard, and we continue to make improvements to our service so that everyone feels safe participating in the public conversation—whether they are speaking or simply listening,” Dorsey said. “The protections offered by Section 230 help us achieve this important objective.”

Twitter recently came under fire for blocking the circulation of a controversial New York Post article claiming to contain a “smoking gun” email related to presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter. Twitter blocked users from tweeting links to the Post story as part of its policy against spreading “hacked materials,” although the platform couldn’t verify if those emails were hacked. (U.S. authorities are investigating whether the published emails are connected to a Russian disinformation campaign targeting the presidential election, per CNN Business.)

Dorsey apologized for blocking the story URLs earlier this month. At Wednesday’s hearing, he denied allegations that Twitter has the power to influence U.S. politics, including the results of 2020 presidential election.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Zuckerberg’s main message is that Congress should work out their internal disagreement first and take a more active role in drafting clear regulations, including Section 230 updates.

“We believe in giving people a voice, even when that means defending the rights of people we disagree with…Free expression is central to how we move forward together as a society,” he said in his opening remarks. “Section 230 allows us to empower people to engage on important issues…and to provide space where non-profits, religious groups, news organizations, and businesses of all sizes can reach people.”

He added that removing or replacing Section 230 with a less protective law could incentivize tech companies to censor even more content to avoid legal risks. “Without Section 230, platforms could potentially be held liable for everything people say,” he said.

See Also: Justice Department Sues Google Over Monopolies, Shutting Out Competitors

Google CEO Sundar Pichai

Pichai said Section 230 is fundamental to allowing Google to provide access to a wide range of information and opinions.

“As you think about how to shape policy in this important area, I would urge the Committee to be very thoughtful about any changes to Section 230 and to be very aware of the consequences those changes might have on businesses and consumers,” he said in his opening remarks.

In response to criticism that Google suppresses conservative speech on its platforms, Pichai said Google 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,” he said.
Big Tech CEOs Try to Save Their Business From Senators’ Anger Over Content Moderation