The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously voted to subpoena Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify on a key law that shields websites from liability for user generated content.
The tech CEOs are being summoned specifically to testify about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a key legal shield for tech companies ranging from small websites to industry-dominating giants that guards them from liability for most types of content uploaded by their users. For instance, it prevents Facebook from being sued because one of its users made a defamatory post. The law is foundational to the modern web. It’s also now a major political football.
Some Republicans, including Donald Trump, have become obsessed with a conspiracy theory that major tech firms are secretly conspiring to censor conservatives and have targeted section 230 in response. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden too, has suggested major firms should lose their 230 protections entirely—and in particular has been very angry with Facebook for allowing politicians to lie in ads and spread disinformation.
Per Bloomberg Businessweek, proposals that have enjoyed some degree of bipartisan support have included measures to expose tech firms to greater liability on things like child exploitation content. Other proposals have included holding firms liable for breaches of promises made in terms of service or public claims by the companies, such as failing to take down threats of violence. A bill called the PACT Act, which would force more transparency around moderation policies and require firms to remove content that courts have found illegal, is also supported by some from both parties, and reportedly may not face strong resistance from tech firms.
According to CNBC, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, Senator Maria Cantwell, was initially concerned that subpoenaing the tech CEOs would simply give Republicans an opportunity to stage a political stunt. (Prior congressional hearings on tech have often devolved into clown shows, with one GOP congressperson after another using their time to yell at testifying tech execs about how such and such right-wing internet personality got banned or didn’t get enough views.) Cantwell said the GOP chair of the committee, Senator Roger Wicker, compromised by modifying the language of the subpoenas to include a broader focus on privacy and “media domination.” That was enough to clinch a unanimous vote, CNBC reported, though Cantwell reiterated that she didn’t want the hearings to simply become a pro-Trump struggle session:
Cantwell stressed, however, “what I don’t want to see is a chilling effect on individuals who are in a process of trying to crack down on hate speech or misinformation about Covid during a pandemic.”
“I welcome the debate about [Section] 230,” Cantwell said in her opening remarks. “I think it should be a long and thoughtful process. Not sure a long and thoughtful process will happen before the election, but I understand my colleagues’ desires here today.”
Senator Ted Cruz, one of the Republicans on the committee, said after the vote that even “if you happen to agree with them on a particular issue right now, ceding the power to the star chamber of Silicon Valley is profoundly dangerous.” CNBC wrote that Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is also the chair of the Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, told GOP senators that “you need to join us” in maintaining a focus on monopolies.
Wicker, having gotten his subpoenas, isn’t exactly building confidence he and his Republican colleagues will restrain themselves from ripping off their shirts and hollering about hydroxychloroquine video takedowns or whatever. According to the Wall Street Journal, the senator told reporters the vote on Thursday was “imperative” to ensure “this committee of jurisdiction and the American people receive a full accounting from the heads of these companies about their content moderation practices” before the elections. The Washington Post reported that Wicker risked derailing the unanimous vote by bringing up claims that the “suppression of certain viewpoints” is “stifling the true diversity of political discourse on the Internet.”
The date of Dorsey, Pichai, and Zuckerberg’s testimony to the committee has yet to be decided.