(Reuters) – A U.S. Senate hearing on Internet law reform and accountability for tech companies moderating content quickly turned into a political controversy as lawmakers not only pursued companies but also attacked each other.
Legislators are divided over how to hold big tech accountable under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This protects companies from liability for content published by users, but also lets companies shape the political discourse.
Republican lawmakers used most of the hearing to accuse the companies of selective censorship against conservatives. The Democrats primarily focused on inadequate action against the misinformation that affects the general election.
In answering a limited number of questions about the law, Alphabet’s CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google said it was critical to freedom of expression on the internet. They said section 230 gives them the tools to strike a balance between maintaining freedom of speech and moderating content, even if they were open to the idea that the law needed moderate changes.
All three CEOs also agreed that companies should be held liable if their platforms act as publishers, but they denied being the arbiter of political speech – a claim that angered some Republicans.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz followed up on Twitter’s Jack Dorsey after the CEO said Twitter had no control over elections.
“Who the hell voted you and made you responsible for what the media can report and what the American people can hear?” Cruz asked, referring to the platform’s decision to block stories from the New York Post about the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Prior to the hearing, the Senator posted a picture on Twitter titled “Freedom of Speech Cruz versus Dorsey,” in which he and Dorsey from Twitter competed against each other.
Democratic Senator Brian Schatz said he had no questions and called the hearing “nonsense”. “This is bullying and it’s electoral,” he said.
Other Democrats, including Tammy Baldwin, Ed Markey and Amy Klobuchar, said the hearing was held to support President Donald Trump’s re-election.
Trump, who claims the companies suppressed conservative voices, tweeted, “Repeal Section 230!” during the hearing.
Dorsey, who has received the most criticism from Republicans, warned the committee that the erosion of the Section 230 foundation could seriously affect the way people communicate online. Google’s Sundar Pichai said his company operates without political prejudice and that it would be against his business interests.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who briefly had trouble with his internet connection at the beginning of the hearing, said he supported a change in the law but also warned that tech platforms will likely censor more to avoid legal risk if Section 230 is repealed becomes. Biden has expressed support for the repeal of the law.
No more “free pass”
Republican Senator Roger Wicker, chairman of the committee, said it was important to protect companies from liability without giving them the ability to censor content they dislike.
“It is time for this free pass to end,” he said.
Wicker also criticized Twitter’s decision to block the New York Post’s stories about Biden’s son and Facebook’s move to limit their reach.
He and other senators, like Cory Gardner, followed up on Twitter for not removing tweets from world leaders who allegedly spread misinformation, but instead aggressively following Trump’s tweets.
US lawmakers aren’t the only ones pushing for reform. The Executive Commission of the European Union is currently drafting a new law on digital services which, in addition to combating market abuse by dominant platforms, also regulates liability for harmful or illegal content. Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager will present her proposals on December 2nd.
(Reporting by Nandita Bose and David Shepardson in Washington. Additional reporting by Diane Bartz in Washington and Douglas Busvine in Frankfurt. Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Lisa Shumaker.)
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