Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai to testify before Senate on Oct. 28

Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai to testify before Senate on Oct. 28

October 6, 2020

Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai are subpoenaed to testify before Senate committee on October 28 over hate speech, misinformation and claims of anti-conservative bias on Facebook, Twitter and Google

  • The Senate Commerce Committee issued subpoenas for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai of Google, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey 
  • The trio will appear virtually on Oct. 28 to discuss the reformation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects them from liability
  • Lawmakers from both parties have called for changes to the legal liability shield, claiming the provision enables toxic and harmful content to proliferate
  • Additionally, the CEOs will each likely be grilled over claims of anti-conservative bias, their efforts to tackle disinformation and internet safety for children 

The CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter are expected to testify before the Senate on October 28 for a hearing on tech companies’ control over hate speech and misinformation on their platforms.

The Senate Commerce Committee voted last week to authorize subpoenas for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai of Google, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey to force them to testify if they didn’t agree to do so voluntarily. Spokespeople for the companies said Monday that the CEOs will cooperate.

The Silicon Valley trio will appear virtually to discuss the reformation of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which protects the firms from liability over content posted on their platforms while allowing them to moderate it.

Lawmakers from both parties have called for changes to the legal liability shield, claiming the provision enables toxic and harmful content to proliferate.

Additionally, the CEOs will each likely be grilled over claims of anti-conservative bias, their efforts to tackle disinformation and online scams, and internet safety for children and teenagers on each of their respective platforms.

in the spotlight: Mark Zuckerberg is one of the three big tech CEOs hit by the subpoena 


Also being questioned: Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Sundar Pichai of Twitter will be questioned

The hearing will come less than a week before Election Day. It marks a new bipartisan initiative against Big Tech companies, which have been under increasing scrutiny in Washington and from state attorneys general over issues of competition, consumer privacy and hate speech.

Republican Senator Roger Wicker, who chairs the Commerce Committee, said the executives’ testimony is needed ‘to reveal the extent of influence that their companies have over American speech during a critical time in our democratic process.’

Wicker had originally requested the CEOs testify on October 1 on a voluntary basis but said, ‘I regret that they have again declined to participate and answer questions about issues that are so visible and urgent to the American people.’

On Thursday, he said Section 230’s ‘sweeping liability protections’ are stifling diversity of political discourse on the internet.

‘We have questioned how they are protecting and securing the data of millions of Americans, we’ve explored how they’re combating disinformation fraud and other online scams, we’ve examined whether they are providing a safe and secure internet experience for children and teens.’

Wicker added that the panel wants to know ‘how they are removing content from their sites that encourages extremism and mass violence… their use of secret algorithms that may manipulate users and drive compulsive usage of the internet, among our youth.’

The panel’s top Democrat Maria Cantwell, who opposed the move last week saying she was against using ‘the committee’s serious subpoena power for a partisan effort 40 days before an election,’ changed her mind and voted to approve the move.

‘I actually can’t wait to ask Mr. Zuckerberg further questions,’ Cantwell said. ‘I welcome the debate about 230.’

In a post on its policy page, Twitter urged lawmakers that the hearing ‘must be constructive and focused on what matters most to the American people: how we work together to protect elections.’

Republican President Donald Trump has made holding tech companies accountable for allegedly stifling conservative voices a theme of his administration

Republican President Donald Trump has made holding tech companies accountable for allegedly stifling conservative voices a theme of his administration.

With Trump leading the way, conservative Republicans have kept up a barrage of criticism of Silicon Valley´s social media platforms, which they accuse without evidence of deliberately suppressing conservative views. However, data has shown that conservative sites and pundits regularly generate content that garner the most interactions of any outlets online.

Facebook, meanwhile, is expanding restrictions on political advertising, including new bans on messages claiming widespread voter fraud. The new prohibitions laid out in a blog post came days after President Donald Trump raised the prospect of mass fraud in the vote-by-mail process during a debate last week with Democratic rival Joe Biden.

‘I generally believe the best antidote to bad speech is more speech, but in the finals days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims, so, in the week before the election, we won’t accept new political or issue ads,’ Zuckerberg wrote in a post last month.

In May, Twitter began adding fact-checking labels to tweets to stop the spread of misinformation. The policy extended to tweets authored by the president himself.

The president has accused Twitter of ‘stifling free speech’ after it included fact-checking links on a series of his misleading tweets, and claimed the social media giant was ‘interfering in the 2020 presidential election’, warning he ‘will not allow it to happen’.

The Justice Department has asked Congress to roll back long-held legal protections for online platforms, putting down a legislative marker in Trump’s drive against the social media giants. The proposed changes would strip some of the bedrock protections that have generally shielded the companies from legal responsibility for what people post on their platforms.

Trump signed an executive order earlier this year challenging the protections from lawsuits from the 1996 telecommunications law that has served as the foundation for unfettered speech on the internet.

Democrats, on the other hand, have focused their criticism of social media mainly on hate speech, misinformation and other content that can incite violence or keep people from voting. They have criticized Big Tech CEOs for failing to police content, homing in on the platforms´ role in hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism in the US.

Perceptions of a failure to tackle such content spurred the Stop Hate for Profit advertising boycott campaign earlier this year, which saw thousands of companies temporarily cease marketing their products on Facebook to spur reform.

This will be the second time that Zuckerberg and Pichai have faced US lawmakers this year. In July, they, along with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple Boss Tim Cook, appeared before the House Judiciary Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee.

The tech bosses refuted accusations that their respective companies abuse market dominance and limit competition.

Combined, the companies have a joint-market value of more than $5 trillion.

SECTION 230: THE LAW AT CENTER OF BIG TECH SENATE SHOWDOWN

Twenty-six words tucked into a 1996 law overhauling telecommunications have allowed companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google to grow into the giants they are today.

Under the U.S. law, internet companies are generally exempt from liability for the material users post on their networks. Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act – itself part of a broader telecom law – provides a legal ‘safe harbor’ for internet companies.

But Republicans increasingly argue that Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have abused that protection and should lose their immunity – or at least have to earn it by satisfying requirements set by the government.

Section 230 probably can’t be easily dismantled. But if it was, the internet as we know it might cease to exist.

Just what is Section 230?

If a news site falsely calls you a swindler, you can sue the publisher for libel. But if someone posts that on Facebook, you can’t sue the company – just the person who posted it.

That’s thanks to Section 230, which states that ‘no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.’

That legal phrase shields companies that can host trillions of messages from being sued into oblivion by anyone who feels wronged by something someone else has posted – whether their complaint is legitimate or not.

Section 230 also allows social platforms to moderate their services by removing posts that, for instance, are obscene or violate the services’ own standards, so long as they are acting in ‘good faith.’

Where did Section 230 come from?

The measure’s history dates back to the 1950s, when bookstore owners were being held liable for selling books containing ‘obscenity,’ which is not protected by the First Amendment. One case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which held that it created a ‘chilling effect’ to hold someone liable for someone else´s content.

That meant plaintiffs had to prove that bookstore owners knew they were selling obscene books, said Jeff Kosseff, the author of ‘The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet,’ a book about Section 230.

Fast-forward a few decades to when the commercial internet was taking off with services like CompuServe and Prodigy. Both offered online forums, but CompuServe chose not to moderate its, while Prodigy, seeking a family-friendly image, did.

CompuServe was sued over that, and the case was dismissed. Prodigy, however, got in trouble. The judge in their case ruled that ‘they exercised editorial control – so you’re more like a newspaper than a newsstand,’ Kosseff said.

That didn’t sit well with politicians, who worried that outcome would discourage newly forming internet companies from moderating at all. And Section 230 was born.

‘Today it protects both from liability for user posts as well as liability for any clams for moderating content,’ Kosseff said.

What happens if Section 230 is limited or goes away?

‘I don´t think any of the social media companies would exist in their current forms without Section 230,’ Kosseff said. ‘They have based their business models on being large platforms for user content.’

There are two possible outcomes. Platforms might get more cautious, as Craigslist did following the 2018 passage of a sex-trafficking law that carved out an exception to Section 230 for material that ‘promotes or facilitates prostitution.’ Craigslist quickly removed its ‘personals’ section altogether, which wasn’t intended to facilitate sex work. But the company didn´t want to take any chances.

This outcome could actually hurt none other than the president himself, who routinely attacks private figures, entertains conspiracy theories and accuses others of crimes.

‘If platforms were not immune under the law, then they would not risk the legal liability that could come with hosting Donald Trump´s lies, defamation, and threats,’ said Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Another possibility: Facebook, Twitter and other platforms could abandon moderation altogether and let the lower common denominator prevail.

Such unmonitored services could easily end up dominated by trolls, like 8chan, which is infamous for graphic and extremist content, said Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman. Undoing Section 230 would be an ‘an existential threat to the internet,’ he said.

ASSOCIATED PRESS 

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