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For more than three hours on Wednesday, Democrat and Republican senators took jabs at Facebook, Twitter, and Google, saying that they disseminate misinformation, spark violence, and suppress conservative voices.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation explored whether Section 230, a law that protects Internet companies from being held liable for what users post, gives Big Tech companies too much immunity. Lawmakers from both parties agree that the law should be changed or even revoked, though they differ about why.
Democrats repeatedly criticized the companies for failing to remove harmful information on their services. Meanwhile, Republicans hammered the companies for allegedly suppressing conservative views and influencing elections.
“You think that people don’t trust you,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin. “I agree with that. We don’t trust you.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey spent the hearing trying to defend themselves from the attacks. Time and again, they said they’re at war against harmful content, that they are politically neutral, and that they’re working to safeguard the presidential election.
Here are the highlights from the hearing:
The hearing was marked by intense exchanges between lawmakers expressing their frustration and executives trying to be as inoffensive as possible.
Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, took Dorsey to task for allowing Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweets questioning the Holocaust to remain untouched on Twitter while the service routinely flags President Trump’s tweets.
Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz criticized Twitter for blocking a New York Post article that suggested Biden had ties to corruption in the Ukraine while allowing a New York Times story about Trump’s taxes to remain. One day after the Post article about Biden was published, Twitter reversed its stance on blocking it. But Cruz also asked Dorsey point-blank whether Twitter has the ability to influence elections.
Dorsey responded by saying, “No, we are one part of a spectrum of communication channels people have.” Cruz snapped back, “Mr. Dorsey, I find your opening answers absurd on their face.”
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, from Minnesota, said she was concerned about Google’s “defiant” response to the Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit against it. She also questioned Zuckerberg about Facebook’s alleged interest in pushing divisive content to users because it provokes them to spend more time on the platform.
Zuckerberg disagreed with Klobuchar’s characterization, saying Facebook shows users content that it thinks will be meaningful to them like “when your cousin had her baby.” Klobuchar stopped Zuckerberg mid-sentence, saying she’s not talking about cousins and babies but rather the “corrosive” content like conspiracy theories.
Beyond Section 230
Though the hearing was supposed to focus on Section 230, senators often veered off topic to discuss other issues including data privacy, antitrust, and political ads.
The CEOs of Twitter, Google, and Facebook all said they continue to see foreign and domestic actors trying to interfere with the U.S. election, contrary to President Trump’s minimizing or dismissing the problem. The CEOs added that they have coordinated with the rest of the tech industry and law enforcement to identify and remove such posts.
“One of the threats the FBI has alerted our companies and the public to was the possibility of a hack-and-leak operation in the days or weeks leading up to this election,” Zuckerberg said. “That if a trove of documents appeared, that we should view that with suspicion that it might be part of a foreign manipulation attempt.”
The virtual hearing about the tech industry ended up being marred by tech hiccups. Even the tech CEO had troubles.
Zuckerberg went AWOL from the opening statements because of a technical snafu that ended up delaying the hearing for a few minutes while the CEO tried to fix the problem. After Zuckerberg appeared, and explained he had trouble connecting, Sen. Roger Wicker, the Republican chairman of the committee, joked, “I know the feeling, Mr. Zuckerberg.”
Later, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s audio was muted halfway through a sentence. Wicker alerted Blumenthal to the issue, and the hearing briefly paused until he was unmuted.
Some lawmakers used the hearing to go off in odd tangents.
For example, Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee asked Pichai if Google still employed software engineer Blake Lemoine. In leaked internal emails, the Google employee likened Blackburn to a “terrorist” and a “violent thug” in her approach to certain political issues. “He has had very unkind things to say about me,” said Blackburn, implying that he should be fired and later suggesting that Internet companies unfairly censor conservative voices.
In another odd moment, Sen. Johnson became frustrated with Dorsey because Twitter did not remove a tweet that contained a lie about Johnson strangling his neighbor’s dog. The author admitted in the tweet that the dog strangling was false, likely to show how misinformation can be spread.
“That could definitely impact my ability to get reelected,” he complained in complete seriousness about the tweet.