A United States Senate hearing turned into a literal virtual brawl on Wednesday as the most powerful CEOs in social media were taken to task by Republican lawmakers over how content is policed on their platforms.
The chiefs of Twitter Inc, Facebook Inc and Google parent Alphabet Inc testified virtually at the hearing examining whether to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Section 230 shields companies from liability over content posted by users but also lets the firms shape political discourse. All three CEOs said the law is crucial to free expression on the internet.
Earlier this year, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order challenging the protections from lawsuits under the 1996 telecommunications law.
With less than a week before the November 3 US elections, the social media chiefs are facing charges of anti-conservative bias after Twitter and Facebook blocked a link to a New York Post story based on unverified emails about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Twitter’s chief Jack Dorsey later said it was “wrong” to block URLs to the Post’s story without explaining to users why it had been done.
But after Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said on Wednesday that his platform has no influence over the election, Republican Senator Ted Cruz launched a blistering attack on him before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
“Twitter’s conduct has by far been the most egregious,” Cruz told Dorsey, citing Twitter’s limitations on the New York Post story as part of “a pattern of censorship and silencing Americans with whom Twitter disagrees”.
“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?” Cruz asked.
Ahead of the hearing, the senator released a picture on Twitter titled “Free Speech showdown Cruz vs Dorsey” that showed him and Twitter’s Dorsey pitted against each other.
UPDATE: I will begin my line of questioning momentarily.
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) October 28, 2020
President Trump, who also alleges that the companies stifle conservative voices, tweeted during the hearing: “Repeal Section 230!”
The USA doesn’t have Freedom of the Press, we have Suppression of the Story, or just plain Fake News. So much has been learned in the last two weeks about how corrupt our Media is, and now Big Tech, maybe even worse. Repeal Section 230!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2020
Separately, Senator Josh Hawley also took a jab at Dorsey, tweeting: “This level of idiocy confirms the widespread impression that Jack’s primary food source is weed.”
This level of idiocy confirms the widespread impression that Jack’s primary food source is weed https://t.co/EREVsyKLty
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) October 28, 2020
Twitter’s global vice president of communications, Brandon Borrman, said: “There’s nothing in the [Hawley] tweet that deserves a response.”
But not all senators had the social media chiefs in their sites. Democratic Senator Brian Schatz took aim at his fellow Republicans on the committee, calling the hearing a “sham”.
“This is bullying,” Schatz told the CEOs. “Do not let US senators bully you into carrying the water” for politicians seeking to discredit their opponents. With their questions, Schatz said, the Republicans “are trying to bully the heads of private companies into making a hit job” on political leaders.
Top Democrat on the panel, Senator Maria Cantwell, called the timing of the hearing into question, saying it would have been better if had been held in January after the November 3 election. The law has little chance of being acted upon by Congress this year.
Twitter’s Dorsey warned the committee that eroding the foundation of Section 230 could significantly hurt how people communicate online.
Alphabet and Google CEO Pichai said Google operates without political bias and that doing otherwise would be against its business interests.
The committee was unable to establish contact with Facebook Inc’s Zuckerberg and declared a short recess. He appeared shortly after and said: “I was having a hard time connecting myself.”
Zuckerberg said he supports changing the law, but also warned that tech platforms are likely to censor more to avoid legal risks if Section 230 is repealed.
All three CEOs agreed the companies should be held liable if the platforms act as a publisher.
Republican Senator Roger Wicker, who chairs the committee, said it was important to shield companies from liability without giving them the ability to censor content they dislike.
“The time has come for that free pass to end,” he said.