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For greater than twenty years, web corporations have been shielded from legal responsibility for a lot of what their customers put up by a regulation called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Now that shield — and how internet companies moderate content on their sites — is being questioned by lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle.
On Wednesday, the chief executives of Google, Facebook and Twitter testified before a Senate committee about their moderation practices.
The hearing, held by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, was a repeat performance before Congress for Sundar Pichai of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter. But with the Nov. 3 election less than a week away, the executives faced additional pressure to manage misinformation without exerting unfair influence on the voting process.
Republicans on the committee expressed concerns that Facebook, Google and Twitter made decisions about how to moderate content in ways that were slanted against conservatives, pointing to the increasing attention the issue has attracted from the party’s base.
They retold anecdotes in which conservative lawmakers or media outlets had seen their content restricted or deleted on the three services. They did not present evidence that there was systematic bias across the services.
Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the Commerce Committee chairman, and Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado both questioned Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, about instances in which Twitter had labeled President Trump’s tweets but had not done the same for officials in repressive governments.
“Mr. Dorsey, your platform allows foreign dictators to post propaganda, typically without restriction,” Mr. Wicker said, “yet you typically restrict the president of the United States.”
Many of the committee’s conservatives also expressed their wariness of drastic changes in the law. Mr. Wicker said he had not yet backed a full repeal of Section 230, which protects the companies from liability for posts uploaded by users. And Mr. Gardner, who is facing a tough re-election race, said that lawmakers “have to be very careful and not rush to legislate in ways that stifle speech.”
“I don’t like the idea of unelected elites in San Francisco or Silicon Valley deciding whether my speech is permissible on their platform,” Mr. Gardner said, “but I like even less the idea of unelected Washington, D.C., bureaucrats trying to enforce some kind of politically neutral content moderation.”
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican of Texas, focused on Twitter’s handling of a recent article in the New York Post about Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son, Hunter. The company initially restricted the spread of the article.
“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,” Mr. Cruz said.
Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter, quickly became the primary target of Republicans at the hearing, who questioned him repeatedly on how the company handled specific tweets.
Republicans have often complained that internet companies — Twitter, in particular — are unfairly silencing conservative voices. About 80 minutes into the hearing, 16 of 25 Republican questions were to Mr. Dorsey.
And that was before Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, theatrically lit into Mr. Dorsey over Twitter’s recent handling of a New York Post article about Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son, Hunter Biden.
Mr. Cruz, shouting at times, questioned Mr. Dorsey about Twitter’s decision to block the New York Post article from being shared. Although Twitter later reversed the decision, Mr. Cruz complained that Twitter was influencing the election and interfering with the free press.
Mr. Dorsey said Twitter could not influence the vote because Americans had a variety of social media channels to communicate. He said the decision to block links to the New York Post article was “incorrect” and that it had been changed.
“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?” Mr. Cruz said.
Mr. Dorsey blandly responded, “We realize we need to earn trust more,” even as the senator interrupted him.
Other Republican senators said they wanted to know why Twitter added fact checks and warning labels to some of President Trump’s tweets, and criticized Mr. Dorsey for not labeling tweets from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“I just don’t understand how you can label the president of the United States. Have you ever taken a tweet down from the ayatollah?” asked Sen. Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado.
Mr. Dorsey focused his responses on broader comments about Twitter’s policies. He stressed that his companies’ rules were intended, in particular, to guard against tweets that could incite violence or harm in the offline world. He argued that Twitter had taken action on tweets from many world leaders.
“The goal of our labeling is to provide more context, to connect the dots, so people can make decisions for themselves,” Mr. Dorsey said.
Kellen Browning contributed reporting.
Democrats took a very different approach than Republicans in their questioning of the tech chief executives on Wednesday, prodding them about their efforts to stem the spread of disinformation and extremism. They also accused Republicans of holding the hearing to benefit President Trump.
“I want to know first why this hearing comes six days before Election Day, and it — I believe we are politicizing and the Republican majority is politicizing what should actually not be a partisan topic,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota.
Democrats were largely open to reforms of the Section 230 legal shield of internet companies, which protects the businesses from liability for posts by users. Instead, their complaints were directed at insufficient action by the tech platforms against misinformation that interferes with the election.
“I hope today that we will get a report from the witnesses on exactly what they have been doing to clamp down on election interference,” said Senator Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat in the Commerce Committee. I hope that they will tell us what kind of hate speech and misinformation they have taken off the books.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, pressed the companies on their plans for how they would respond to President Trump if he tried to delegitimize the election or call an election result too early.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey said they all had plans, including working with The Associated Press for information and to provide results from local officials.
Republicans have focused much of their ire at the Senate Commerce hearing on Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. And Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg? He has been more of a target for Democrats.
Roughly two hours into the hearing, Mr. Zuckerberg had fielded 14 out of the 21 questions from Democrats on the Senate Commerce committee, according to a tally by The New York Times. The Facebook chief executive was asked about his views on reforming Section 230, the legal shield that protects tech companies from most liability for what their users post, as well as what Facebook was doing to be ready for the Nov. 3 election.
Mr. Zuckerberg, now a five-time veteran of appearing in front of Congress, took most of the questions in stride and appeared well-briefed. He rattled off the numbers of Facebook workers focused on content moderation on the social network (more than 35,000), and noted that the company was spending billions of dollars — more than Facebook’s entire 2012 revenue — on election security.
Mr. Zuckerberg, who experienced a technical glitch at the start of the hearing, also livened up his surroundings from the last time he testified to lawmakers in July. At that hearing, which was about antitrust, Mr. Zuckerberg sat in a blank, white room. This time, he was flanked by curtains and a plant. It was unclear whether Mr. Zuckerberg was appearing from his home in Silicon Valley or another of his residences.
Kellen Browning contributed reporting.
On most days, Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, is soft-spoken — and that was ever more apparent on Wednesday.
At the Senate hearing about the Section 230 legal shield for tech companies, Mr. Pichai barely spoke: He fielded just 22 of the 129 questions asked by the lawmakers, according to a tally by The New York Times. Instead, the panel focused on Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive.
Among the limited questions directed to Mr. Pichai, lawmakers asked not about content moderation — ostensibly the subject of the hearing — but about Google’s response to an antitrust lawsuit that the Justice Department filed against the company last week.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, said she found Google’s response to the lawsuit “insulting.” Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, declared, “Google has more power than any company on the face of the planet” — but didn’t actually ask a question of Mr. Pichai.
The lack of questions and scrutiny mirrored how Google’s YouTube has often avoided much of the harshest criticism directed at social networks about how they police misinformation and harmful conspiracy theories on their platforms.
When asked what Google was doing to prepare for attempts by President Trump to use its platform to interfere with the Nov. 3 election, Mr. Pichai repeated his talking points, saying that the company would work to elevate authoritative news sources to provide accurate information.
“We have been planning for a while, and we rely on raising up our new sources through moments like that,” said Mr. Pichai, in one of his lengthiest responses.
Kellen Browning contributed reporting.
At a hearing to discuss the legislative options for updating Section 230, the liability protection extended to websites for content created by users, one subject was rarely discussed: Section 230.
The questions from the Senate Commerce committee to the chief executives of Twitter, Facebook and Google ping-ponged from antitrust concerns, privacy measures, the demise of local news, and diatribes about politicizing the policies of content moderation.
While there were many questions about specific decisions made by the companies to take down or keep up a piece of content, there were few questions about the consequences of the liability shield of Section 230, or how it might be changed.
One exception came from Senator Deb Fischer, a Republican from Nebraska. She asked Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, about what changes he would like to see in Section 230 with regard to content moderation. He responded with a talking point — more transparency into how content was moderated would help to build trust among users, he said.
As the hearing rounded into a third hour, Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, asked the executives about a clause in the statute that protects companies from liability for restricting access to content that they deem “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” She asked whether they would be in favor of redefining the phrase “otherwise objectionable.”
All the chief executives said they supported keeping the clause in place. “I would worry that some of the proposals that suggest getting rid of the phrase ‘otherwise objectionable’ from Section 230 would limit our ability to remove bullying and harassing content from our platforms, which would make them worse places for people,” said Mr. Zuckerberg. “I think we need to be careful in how we think through that.”
Mr. Pichai also said the phrase was important because it provided the companies with flexibility to take action in situations that were never considered when the law was written, such as when children started eating laundry detergent pods as part of a challenge to others.
Facebook, Google and Twitter continue to be the focus of foreign operations intended to influence U.S. elections, the chief executives of the companies said, and they have prioritized removing these kinds of operations from their platforms.
Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai, in one of the most fluid exchanges of the Senate hearing, cited recent examples of Russian and Iranian interference efforts, and said those operations had been stopped.
“Like Jack and Sundar, we also see continued attempts by Russia and other countries, especially Iran and China, to run these kinds of information operations,” said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebooks’ chief executive. “We have also seen an increase in domestic operations around the world.”
The executives stressed the importance of partnerships with intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and said their companies could collaborate with the agencies to stop election interference. Mr. Zuckerberg said the F.B.I. had warned the companies to be on alert for a so-called hack-and-leak operation that might try to spread damaging or stolen information in the weeks leading up to the election.
But the social media companies have struggled to crack down on disinformation campaigns originating within the United States. Mr. Zuckerberg also noted that misinformation about the pandemic was a persistent problem.
“We will continue to work and push back on any manipulation,” Mr. Dorsey said.