Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai face off with Congress over Section 230, free speech

The Facebook, Twitter and Google CEOs sparred with a Senate committee over a foundational internet law.

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Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
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The leaders of Facebook , Twitter and Google faced withering attacks from both Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday, as US senators grilled the tech titans over a key internet law that's helped their businesses flourish.

Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, set a cordial-yet-combative tone at the beginning of the hearing about Section 230, a law that shields social media companies from liability for content posted by their users and allows them discretion in moderating offensive posts such as hate speech. 

"This liability shield has been pivotal in protecting online platforms from endless and potentially ruinous lawsuits. It has also given these internet platforms the ability to control, stifle and even censor content in whatever manner meets their respective standards," Wicker told Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg , Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai at the start of the three-and-a-half-hour hearing. "The time has come for that free pass to end."

Watch this: What is Section 230?

Republicans weren't alone in their criticism of the companies and concerns about the law, which is considered foundational to free expression on the internet. Democrats have targeted Section 230, saying Facebook, Twitter, Google and other companies aren't doing enough to curb the spread of misinformation and hate speech. Multiple Democrats accused Republicans of trying to intimidate tech platforms into allowing misinformation.

"Facts save lives, and there's no both sides when one side has chosen to reject truth and embrace poisonous false information," said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois. 

Though the hearing was supposed to focus on Section 230, lawmakers targeted the content moderation decisions Facebook, Twitter and Google make rather than the law itself. Some Republican senators quizzed the executives on the political leanings of their employees. Alleged partisanship was a consistent theme of Republicans, who accuse the tech firms of censoring conservative speech. The companies have repeatedly denied those allegations.

Concerns about censorship increased after Twitter and Facebook took steps to slow the spread of a New York Post article about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's son Hunter, a subject referenced multiple times throughout the hearing. In a fiery exchange, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, slammed Dorsey for Twitter's move to block links to the story, which circulated about two weeks ago. Dorsey, who sported a long beard, acknowledged that Twitter had acted too quickly, a comment that didn't satisfy Cruz.

"Mr. Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear?" the senator thundered. "The New York Post isn't just some random guy tweeting. The New York Post has the fourth-highest circulation of any newspaper in America. The New York Post is over 200 years old. The New York Post was founded by Alexander Hamilton."

Watch this: Twitter CEO gets yelled at by Sen. Ted Cruz

Dorsey also told Cruz that Twitter didn't have the ability to influence the elections, because people can choose other platforms to visit. Republicans seized on the comment later in the hearing.

Zuckerberg said his social network had taken steps to combat hate speech, such as banning white supremacists, but he agreed that Facebook should look at its content recommendations. Lawmakers also pressed Zuckerberg, who is seasoned in testifying on Capitol Hill, about Facebook policies designed to address posts about the Nov. 3 election, particularly those from President Donald Trump. The company will pull down posts that incite violence, Zuckerberg said, adding that in the case of posts that prematurely declare victory, the social network will label them and direct users to more authoritative sources. 

Facebook, Twitter and Google said earlier during the hearing that Section 230 has helped encourage free expression while making it possible for them to moderate content. The CEOs of all three companies defended Section 230 and raised concerns that any major changes could result in more removal of free speech. 

Zuckerberg, who experienced connectivity issues early on in the hearing, said Congress should update Section 230 "to make sure it's working as intended." But he also expressed worry that altering the language of Section 230 could make it tougher for online platforms to combat bullying and harassment. 

The Facebook CEO said he supported changes to the law that would encourage more-transparent content moderation. He also said companies shouldn't be able to hide behind Section 230 to avoid responsibility "for intentionally facilitating illegal activity on their platforms." 

Dorsey and Zuckerberg faced the brunt of the attacks, and the two CEOs demonstrated their different approaches to content moderation. Pichai went relatively unnoticed, though many senators repeatedly mispronounced his name. Lawmakers criticized Google for the impact it's had on local journalism through the way it's significantly cut into the industry's advertising revenue, a theme Cantwell touched on a day earlier with a report on big tech's impact on smaller news outlets

Pichai said his company has tried to help media companies with a handful of initiatives.

Watch this: Twitter, Google and Facebook make their opening statements to Congress

Lawmakers eye changes to Section 230

Politicians and lawmakers have different viewpoints about Section 230.

Some lawmakers, including Wicker and Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, want to amend Section 230. Others, such as Trump and Biden, want to get rid of the protections altogether. 

In May, Trump signed an executive order asking for Section 230 to be revisited and giving the Federal Trade Commission responsibility for investigating complaints of political bias stemming from content moderation decisions by social media companies. The Federal Communications Commission is planning to move forward with regulation that would reinterpret Section 230.

Trump has repeatedly called for the repeal of Section 230. Separately, Biden told The New York Times in January that Section 230 should be revoked

Lawmakers from both parties have introduced bills to revise Section 230. Wicker and two other influential Republicans introduced legislation in September that would narrow the scope of the protections under Section 230 to cover the removal of unlawful material, posts that promote terrorism and content that encourages self-harm.

Eshoo and Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced a bill in October that would remove legal protections under Section 230 if a company's algorithm is used to amplify or recommend posts involving international terrorism or posts that interfere with civil rights. Sen. Josh Hawley, a vocal critic of Section 230 and a Republican from Missouri, has introduced several bills on the issue, including one that would allow Americans to sue tech companies that censor political speech. 

Wednesday's hearing also included, as expected, in-fighting between Republicans and Democrats.

Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, asked the CEOs if they believe they're "refs" of political speech, and each leader answered no. The senator sought to shoot down criticism of Republicans from Democrats who assert conservatives are trying to "work the refs" when it comes to political speech. 

Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, said the entire hearing was a political stunt from Republicans. "We have to call this hearing what it is. It's a sham," he said. "I'm not going to use my time to ask any questions because this is nonsense."

Watch this: Hawaii senator calls big tech congressional hearing 'a sham'

Correction, 10:34 a.m. PT: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote from Sen. Deb Fischer to Schatz.