There was a big hearing in the Senate today regarding the future of online speech and the law that allows the web-as-we-know-it to function. Of the three big witnesses at the hearing, Google CEO Sundar Pichai may have expected to be in the hot seat given that his company was just slapped with an antitrust lawsuit by the DOJ. But no one even seemed to know Pichai’s name.
The regulatory issues surrounding big tech have become so pressing and entangled that none of the marquee hearings that we get in Congress seem to move the dialogue forward. That’s not to say that senators or members of Congress are incapable of asking informed questions or learning about the issues. When politicians sit down with experts for a fact-finding hearing, like in a recent committee hearing on antitrust, they can be quite curious and open-minded. But those sessions don’t make headlines. And when you bring in the CEOs of Alphabet, Facebook, and Twitter, it’s time to put on a show.
Today’s hearing was almost entirely dominated by senators trying to get in shots at Twitter’s Jack Dorsey or decrying the hearing itself as political theater ahead of the election. From the beginning, Chairman Roger Wicker repeatedly referred to the Google CEO as Sundar Puck-eye or Pick-eye rather than properly pronouncing it as Soon-dar Pee-chai. And sure, sometimes politicians have trouble with names, but basically everyone on the committee who elected to use Pichai’s name proceeded to mangle it. Lucky for him, Pichai was virtually ignored.
There was little substantive talk about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Known as “the 26 words that created the internet,” the clause gives liability protection to web services for content that is created on their platforms by third-party users. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are expressing an increasing willingness to change the law, but they often express different goals for the changes. In a statement published ahead of today’s hearing, the digital activist group Fight for the Future published said that “blowing up Section 230 would be devastating for human rights and freedom of expression globally,” and such action would “make Big Tech monopolies like Facebook and Google even more powerful in the process.” That kind of statement might be useful if anyone at the hearing was arguing to blow up Section 230, but lawmakers mostly spent the time bringing up individual grievances.
Colorado Senator Cory Gardner got things rolling for the Republicans, asking the Twitter CEO, “Mr. Dorsey, do you believe that the Holocaust really happened?” No conversation that starts that way has ever produced good results. Gardner’s ultimate point was that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini is a holocaust denier and Twitter doesn’t slap him with fact-checking notes the way it has on a regular basis in recent weeks for President Trump. Dorsey explained that Twitter does not prohibit misinformation unless it falls into one of three different categories: manipulated media, public health, and election interference.
This exchange was admittedly confusing and required Dorsey to point out complications in Twitter’s policies that can make them baffling for the average user. Further questioning along this line continued from other senators throughout the session. One senator would point to one of the world’s worst dictators and say some variation on “you let this guy tweet but when our guy does it, you censor him.” This was tiresome and required Dorsey to explain various policies for world leaders and newsworthiness.
Senator Mike Lee of Utah recently made news for contracting covid-19 and tweeting that democracy is antithetical to what Americans want for our country. Lee’s a total scumbag, but he did acknowledge to Dorsey that Twitter has “every single right to set your own terms of service and to interpret them and to make decisions about violations.” This is a fundamental thing that conservative critics don’t seem to want to acknowledge. These platforms can “censor” anything they want. If you want to argue that they are so powerful that they shouldn’t be allowed to moderate any legal speech, you’re moving more into an antitrust arena, and many conservatives have no interest in breaking up corporations.
Lee wanted to ask about the equal enforcement of policies. He went down the line asking each CEO if they can name one “high-profile” liberal who has been penalized on their networks for violating the rules. This was an imprecise question that requires subjective evaluation of someone being high-profile and knowledge of an individual’s personal ideology. None of the CEOs could think of an example that satisfied Lee and he declared victory, saying that this is evidence that enforcement of social media policies has a negative impact on conservatives that is unfair. This is not, in fact, evidence of anything. It suggests that high-profile liberals violate the ToS less often than conservatives, but it doesn’t even prove that theory.
Senators Ron Johnson and Marsha Blackburn came in for the stupidest hour. Johnson asked Dorsey about a tweet in which a random person wrote:
Sen Ron Johnson is my neighbor and strangled our dog, Buttons, right in front of my 4 yr old son and 3 yr old daughter. The police refuse to investigate. This is a complete lie but important to retweet and note that there are more of my lies to come.
Johnson said his attempts to get the tweet taken down failed, and Twitter doesn’t consider the tweet a violation of its policies. “How does that not affect civic integrity?” Johnson asked. Dorsey was a little confused and said he’d get back to the senator on that. Twitter did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment, but we’re just going to go ahead and guess that the tweet wasn’t considered in violation of anything because it’s about a public figure and specifically states that it is spreading a lie.
Blackburn finally gave Pichai his chance to shine. After asking Dorsey who elected the Ayatollah, Blackburn pivoted to the Google CEO. “Mr. Puhhcheye, is Blake Lemoine, one of your engineers, still working with you?” the senator asked with a growing smile. Pichai responded that he wasn’t sure if this was a current employee. Without missing a beat, Blackburn explained, “Okay, well, he has had very unkind things to say about me, and I was just wondering if you all had still kept him working there.”
The question was related to a Google employee who got some attention from Breitbart in 2018 for his claims that Blackburn is a “terrorist.” I, personally, feel a level of terror at the notion that a sitting senator decided to target a private individual at a committee hearing because he said something mean about her two years ago, so we’re gonna say that the fact-check came back ‘True’ on that one.
You get the idea. It was another infuriating show, and we haven’t even mentioned Ted Cruz’s mad-as-hell meltdown.
Often in these situations, we could point to the Democrats at least trying to talk about the main subject of the hearing, but that wasn’t the case today. Some asked on-topic questions but didn’t really seem to be trying to get anywhere. Most Democrats just wanted to note that this hearing is less than a week from the election and is clearly designed to focus attention on conservative gripes with social media—specifically, it seemed like one last desperate attempt to spotlight the New York Post’s shady story about Hunter Biden story that Twitter foolishly banned before reversing its decision.
Senator Jon Tester lamented the fact that this hearing was rushed and off-topic. He excoriated his colleagues for spending a hearing constantly asking about the political affiliations of private employees and claimed it was clear the directive for the hearing came from the White House. “This is baloney, folks,” Tester exclaimed. “Get out the political garbage and let’s have the commerce hearing do its job.”
Senators will get a do-over on Nov. 17 when the Judiciary Committee takes another stab at the same subject.