Republicans use congressional hearing to berate tech CEOs and claim Trump is 'censored'

Kari Paul in San Francisco
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA</span>
Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

Republican lawmakers berated the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google in a hearing that was ostensibly about a federal law protecting internet companies but mostly focused on how those companies deal with disinformation from Donald Trump and other conservatives.

Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai testified before Congress on Wednesday about section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law underpinning US internet regulation that exempts platforms from legal liability for content generated by its users.

Related: Section 230 hearings live: Twitter, Facebook and Google CEOs testify before Congress

The hearing was meant to investigate “how best to preserve the internet as a forum for open discourse”, according to the Senate judiciary committee, but came largely in response to allegations from Republicans and the president of anti-conservative bias in the tech world. Those accusations are unsubstantiated. In fact, a recent report alleged that Facebook had suppressed progressive content to appease Republican lawmakers.

Still, Republicans on the committee accused the CEOs of “censoring” the president, and questioned them about their decision-making around labeling some of the president’s social media posts as misinformation. The Republican chair of the committee, Roger Wicker, opened the hearing criticizing Twitter and Facebook’s decision to limit sharing of an unverified political story by the New York Post about the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, and Twitter’s labeling of a Trump tweet casting doubt on mail-in ballots as potential misinformation.

Republican after Republican accused Twitter of mishandling Trump’s tweets, with the Senator Marsha Blackburn claiming the company had “censored” Trump 65 times and Biden “zero” times.

Dorsey, the Twitter CEO, responded Trump has not been “censored”.

“To be clear, we have not censored the president,” he said. “We have not taken the tweets down that you are referencing, we added additional context as we do with any world leader.”

The US Senate committee on commerce, science and transportation during a hearing on section 230.
The US Senate committee on commerce, science and transportation during a hearing on section 230. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Democrats on the committee accused their Republican colleagues of politicizing the hearing, which took place mere days before the 3 November election. “Frankly, I am appalled that my Republican colleagues are holding this hearing literally days before an election to browbeat tech platforms for labeling misinformation from our president as what it is,” said Richard Blumenthal, the Democrat of Connecticut.

“This hearing is an embarrassment, we have to call it what it is: a sham,” said Brian Schatz of Hawaii. “This is nonsense, and it’s not going to work this time.”

The first question about section 230 came two hours into the hearing from Deb Fischer of Nebraska. “What if any changes do you think should be made to section 230 to address the specific concerns regarding content moderation you’ve heard this morning?” she asked.

Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO, said that he believed in providing transparency on the content moderation process, and then pointed out that Facebook already does that. Critics have noted Facebook could ultimately benefit from pushing policies that smaller platforms do not have the resources to comply with.

Ultimately the hearing revealed little new information, with lawmakers asking only a handful of questions pertaining to section 230 and using the majority of their time to grandstand about supposed bias. It is unclear if any legislation will be introduced as a result of the hearing.

“Lawmakers are exploiting people’s legitimate anger at big tech companies with this sham section 230 hearing, but most of them have absolutely no interest in actually doing anything meaningful to rein in their power,” said Evan Greer, the deputy director at digital rights group Fight for the Future. “This is about working the referees in a game that marginalized people always lose.”

The modification of section 230 has become a major point of contention in the run-up to the election, with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and both presidential candidates advocating for change. There have been an additional 20 attempts to amend or revoke the law in the past two years.

The tech CEOs have indicated they are open to reform, but urged lawmakers to proceed with caution. In his opening remarks, Zuckerberg warned that tech companies were likely to censor more content to avoid legal risks if section 230 were repealed. “Without section 230, platforms could potentially be held liable for everything people say,” he said.

Zuckerberg also argued that without the law, tech companies could face liability for doing even basic moderation, such as removing hate speech and harassment. He said he supported “updating” the rules for the internet if it were done with the potential consequences in mind.

Pichai said Google approached its work without political bias and was able to offer the information it did because of existing legal frameworks such as section 230. “I would urge the committee to be very thoughtful about any changes to section 230 and to be very aware of the consequences those changes might have on businesses and consumers,” Pichai’s written testimony said.

Dorsey argued 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”.

Trump has zeroed in on section 230 since the tech companies began to label or even remove posts by him or his campaign that spread election misinformation or call for violence.

“Repeal section 230,” Trump tweeted during the hearing.

Ironically, the repeal of section 230 protections would probably lead social media platforms to take more, not less, action over Trump’s posts, as it would hold them legally liable for any falsehoods he posts. Experts say the effects would be comparable to what was seen with the passage of Fosta/Sesta, legislation that held platforms responsible for sexual service advertisements posted on their sites. The passage of those bills led to the removal of Craigslist personal ads and upended content policies on sites like Tumblr.

Privacy advocates have long called for the protection of section 230, saying it is integral to internet freedom. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit civil liberties group, called section 230 “the most important law protecting internet speech”.

The Internet Society, another non-profit organization advocating for internet access, warned that poorly informed policy decisions on section 230 could bring “dire consequences” for what we are able to do online.

That is because the law applies not only to platforms like Facebook and Twitter but to other internet infrastructure like domain name registries and internet service providers. Without section 230, these entities may have to approve content before posting or take other action that would significantly slow the flow of the internet as we know it.