WASHINGTON - The nation's top technology leaders urged U.S. lawmakers Wednesday to keep content moderation protections in place, despite growing calls from Republicans to address perceived bias in the way social media companies handle free speech online.
Online companies are shielded from liability for content on their sites under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Those protections apply to companies of all sizes operating online that use third-party content. But some Republicans contend Section 230 is a "carve-out" for larger companies such as Facebook and Twitter, allowing them to censor content based on political viewpoints and use their considerable reach to influence public discourse.
U.S. President Donald Trump called for an end to Section 230 in a Tweet Wednesday, saying "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!"
At issue is whether or not a company that moderates content is a publisher instead of a platform and if the reach of companies such Facebook, Google and Twitter constitutes a monopoly.
"Companies are actively blocking and throttling the distribution of content on their own platforms and are using protections under Section 230 to do it. Is it any surprise that voices on the right are complaining about hypocrisy, or even worse?" Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker said Wednesday.
Section 230 has received renewed attention during the 2020 presidential election cycle due to online companies' new approaches to content moderation in response to foreign interference on online platforms during the 2016 elections cycle.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey pushed back against that in prepared testimony Wednesday, saying, "We should remember that Section 230 has enabled new companies-small ones seeded with an idea-to build and compete with established companies globally. Eroding the foundation of Section 230 could collapse how we communicate on the Internet, leaving only a small number of giant and well-funded technology companies."
Dorsey told lawmakers one possible approach that is "within reach" would allow users to choose between Twitter's own algorithm that determines what content is viewable, and algorithms developed by third parties.
Wicker said his staff had collected "dozens and dozens" of examples of conservative content that he says has been censored and suppressed over the past four years by Twitter. He alleged the social media company had allowed Chinese Communist propaganda about COVID-19 to remain up for two months while President Donald Trump's claims about mail-in ballots were immediately taken down.
Earlier this month, Twitter blocked users from sharing a link to a news story on Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's son, Hunter. Twitter also locked the accounts of President Trump and White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany for sharing the story, citing its policies for how hacked materials are shared on its website. Based on these actions, Republican Senator Ted Cruz accused Twitter of attempting to influence U.S. elections.
"Your position is that that you can sit in Silicon Valley and demand of the media that you can tell them what stories they can publish; you can tell the American people what reporting they can hear," Cruz said to Dorsey Wednesday.
The Twitter CEO has apologized for the decision, tweeting, "Straight blocking of URLs was wrong, and we updated our policy and enforcement to fix. Our goal is to attempt to add context, and now we have capabilities to do that."
Facebook also restricted sharing of the Hunter Biden story, saying it would first need a third-party fact check.
The social media company had allowed Russian disinformation to flood the site during the 2016 election, but Facebook instituted new policies this election cycle. According to its website, Facebook's response includes the removal of 6.5 billion fake accounts in 2019, adding third-party factcheckers to go over content posted on the site as well as removing 30 networks engaged in coordinated, inauthentic behavior.
"Without Section 230, platforms could potentially be held liable for everything people say. Platforms would likely censor more content to avoid legal risk and would be less likely to invest in technologies that enable people to express themselves in new ways," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told lawmakers Wednesday.
Congressional Democrats expressed concern about the growth of extremist groups online as well as continuing attempts at foreign election interference on social media platforms, questioning the timing of the hearing.
"I am appalled that my Republican colleagues are holding this hearing literally days before an election, when they seem to want to bully and browbeat the platforms here to try to tilt toward President Trump's favor. The timing seems inexplicable except to game the referee," said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal. "President Trump has broken all the norms. And he has put on your platforms, potentially dangerous and lethal misinformation and disinformation."
In an earlier line of questioning, Dorsey told lawmakers Twitter does not maintain lists of accounts to watch, but bases content moderation based on algorithms and service user requests.
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer at Google, also stated the company's commitment toward independence, telling lawmakers, "We approach our work without political bias, full stop. To do otherwise would be contrary to both our business interests and our mission, which compels us to make information accessible to every type of person, no matter where they live or what they believe."