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US Senate’s hearing on Section 230 devolved into political grandstanding

Screenshot from US Senate hearing on Section 230 with Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Jack Dorsey
Screenshot from US Senate hearing on Section 230 with Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichar and Jack Dorsey

For a hearing on Section 230 that saw high profile testimonies from CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google, there was hardly any discussion on the subject. The US Senate’s Commerce Committee’s hearing on the Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — which protects social media companies from being responsible for content posted by users — was marred by political grandstanding and bickering. Republican members of the committee tried to accuse the companies of censoring president Donald Trump and being biased against conservatives. Democratic senators, meanwhile, deplored the hearing for politicising Section 230 just days before the US presidential elections.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in his opening remarks, told the committee that he supported reforming Section 230 to ensure that “it’s working as intended”. Google CEO Sundar Pichai urged the committee to be “very thoughtful” about any changes to Section 230, indicating widespread consequences on businesses and consumers. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was a bit more emphatic in his defence of Section 230 and said weakening Section 230 protections will remove critical speech from the internet.

But this was it. Almost all mention of Section 230 was relegated to the opening statements of the CEOs and a few senators. Republican senators essentially launched a tirade against Dorsey and Zuckerberg for their platforms’ decision to limit the distribution of the New York Post’s articles on Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Dorsey was the recipient of the senators’ ire since Twitter had completely blocked the URL of the story being shared on the platform.

Dorsey fielded the most number questions, followed by Zuckerberg who mainly dealt with questions about Facebook’s content moderation. Pichai barely spoke and when he did, it was about Google employees’ ideological make-up and the antitrust lawsuit against the company.

Section 230 is credited with aiding the development of a bustling worldwide internet ecosystem. It essentially protects internet companies from being held legally liable for any illegal content (such as hate speech, child pornography and so on) that users post on their platforms. The US Department of Justice has proposed amendments to dilute these protections. More recently, the country’s communications regulator said it will revisit Section 230’s legal interpretation to see if it’s working as intended.

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Are platforms referees?

John Thune (R-South Dakota) talked about how Democrats accuse conservatives of “working the refs”, or pressuring social media platforms. However, Thune disagreed that social media platforms should be treated as “referees” or “arbiters of truth”. He asked all three CEOs whether they thought of themselves as referees. All three disagreed — Dorsey replied “no”; Zuckerberg was more verbose, and said he did not want platforms to have that role; Pichai was measured, saying Google makes content moderation decisions, but believes in “maximising freedom of expression”.

More transparency about content moderation policies, algorithms necessary: Seemingly satisfied with the answers, Thune said that this justified the need for more transparency on part of the platforms. He said content moderation policies and algorithms were essentially a “black box” and virtually nothing was known about them. He then asked if it would be a good idea to mandate that users be provided a reason for any content moderation decisions. Both Zuckerberg and Dorsey agreed with the idea.

Zuckerberg has maintained for along time that Facebook would not act as an “arbiter of truth” and that private companies in general and platforms in particular shouldn’t be in a position to fact-check everything people say online. He had previously called for increased government regulation of the internet and social media, specifically in the areas of harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.

Republican senator Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska) said the concept of “good faith” — wherein platforms are afforded great freedom — is being challenged here. Fischer asked if platforms should indeed have that kind of freedom.

Facebook polarising people, does it have responsibility to ‘offramp’ extremists?

Senator Gary Peters (D-Michigan) noted how Facebook was used as a recruiting tool in a plot to kill Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. However, the actual planning activity happened off the Facebook platform. Facebook worked with law enforcement to foil the plot. Peters pointed out that when users reach that level of polarisation, Facebook often deplatforms them. Instead, he asked, shouldn’t Facebook move them away from this kind of extremism? This could be done in the way Facebook is treating election misinformation.

“Mr Zuckerberg, do you believe that your platform has a responsibility to offramp who are on the path to radicalisation by violent extremist groups.” — Gary Peters, Senator (D-Michigan)

So far, discussion around the polarisation of Facebook users has focussed on whether the platform’s algorithms have aided this. But what Peters seems to be suggesting is that Facebook not only rework its algorithms to prevent polarisation, but actively ensure that users on the path to polarisation are identified and moved away from that path.

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Zuckerberg agreed this was a good idea worth pursuing, and that Facebook is already doing a little of what Peters was talking about. He gave the example of Facebook banning white extremist organisations.

Amy Klobuchar also accused Facebook of polarising users — “left, right, whatever”. “Does it bother you, what it has done to our politics?” she asked. Zuckerberg disagreed with this characterisation. “We design our systems to show people the content that is most meaningful to them, which is not trying to be as divisive as possible,” he said.

Facebook should hire more human moderators

Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) asked Zuckerberg if Facebook reviews all political ads that are hosted on the platform. Zuckerberg replied in the affirmative, to which the senator said most of these ads were approved almost instantaneously. She suggested that these ads were largely moderated by AI-based algorithms, which Zuckerberg admitted soon after. Klobuchar suggested that Facebook could hire real persons to do this job rather than leave it to algorithms, especially considering “all this money you have”.

Twitter doesn’t have policy against misinformation

Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) asked Dorsey if flagging Trump’s tweets was part of a greater monitoring it is doing on prominent accounts and if Twitter maintained a formal list of accounts for this. Dorsey said no, and doubled down that Twitter doesn’t even have a general policy for misinformation. “We have a policy against misinformation in three categories, which are manipulated media, public health, specifically COVID and election interference and voter integrity.” Dorsey argued that Holocaust denial was indeed misleading information but Twitter doesn’t have a policy to deal with that kind of misinformation. However, earlier this month, a company spokesperson had said that the company’s hateful content policy, when interpreted, means that posts denying Holocaust will be removed.

Unhappy with Dorsey’s answers, Gardner resumed his accusation that Twitter was politically motivated for censoring the president. He said he wasn’t happy with a “group of Silicon Valley elites” deciding what speech was permissible nor was he happy with a situation where government bureaucrats mandate a content moderation. He then asked if it was fair for platforms to be held liable for any content they themselves published, which all CEOs — Dorsey, Zuckerberg and Pichai — found “reasonable”.

Trump and the Ayatollah

Republican senators brought up various examples, including Ali Khamenei’s, the Ayatollah of Iran, whose tweets were not taken down in spite of calling for violence against Israel. Roger Wickers (R-Mississippi) said that Twitter hadn’t taken down a tweet by him calling for “the removal of the Zionist regime”. Gardner said that despite spreading Holocaust denialism on Twitter, Ayatollah’s tweets remain unflagged. At the same time, Twitter is flagging Trump’s tweets. Gardner asked Dorsey to name other world leaders that it has chosen to flag like it has Trump but Dorsey couldn’t recall any names.

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Bias against right-wing: Almost all Republican senators essentially accused the three companies of being biased against their party and the right-wing in general. Mike Lee (R-Utah) asked the three witnesses several times to name any “high-profile” name from the Democratic party whose content they have taken down. All three CEOs insisted that their content moderation doesn’t happen on the basis of ideology, but were largely unable to take such examples. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) said this bias was visible from how internal groups and chat forums in these companies who were conservative in nature faced harassment from

NY Post’s stories on Hunter Biden cast big shadow

Republican senators were critical of Facebook and Twitter, the latter more than the former, for blocking or limiting the distribution of the New York Post’s articles about Hunter Biden. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Thune said the Post is the fourth-largest newspaper in the US, indicating that this was censorship of a major publication. Thune asked if Facebook would provide a list of all news articles it has throttled like it has in this case, to which Zuckerberg replied in the affirmative. Dorsey too agreed, saying this would lead to increased transparency.

Cruz was able to get several soundbites from his heated (one-sided) argument with Dorsey. Cruz asked him about the hacked materials policy, which Twitter had used to block all distribution of the Post’s articles. Cruz repeatedly claimed the articles were still blocked even now, which Dorsey repeatedly denied, saying the the policy was amended within 24 hours of their initial action and sharing links should work just fine now. Cruz wasn’t satisfied:

“Mr Dorsey, 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?” — Ted Cruz, Senator (R-Texas)

Google criticised for ‘defiant’ response to antitrust suit

Klobuchar was highly critical of Google response to the recent lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice, accusing it of antitrust activity in the search engine market. “Mr Pichai, I have not liked your response to the lawsuit and what has been happening […] I think your response isn’t just offensive, but defiant. You control almost 90% of all search engine queries, 70% of the advertising market. Do you not see this as anti-competitive?” she asked.

In a response reminiscent of his deposition before the antitrust subcommittee, Pichai refused to engage directly, only to say that Google faced “robust” competition in multiple fields, and said the company is happy to engage with the government on this subject.

‘Politicisation of hearing just days before election’

Multiple Democratic senators saw the hearing as an attempt at politicising the Section 230 debate just days ahead of the election. Hence, they spoke very little on Section 230 itself. Klobuchar used her allotted time to call out Republicans for raising this issue days before the Presidential elections, instead of in the four preceding years. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) refused to even ask the witnesses any questions, calling the hearing a “misuse of taxpayer dollars”.

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Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) said the hearings are being held at a time when president Trump has decided to potentially spread misinformation about the elections, along with Russian attempts to influence the election outcome. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) also said that the hearing did not have to take place right now, but acknowledged that a discussion on Section 230 was overdue.

Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) said that the Republican-led Senate has scheduled the hearing to support a “false narrative” to help Trump’s reelection campaign. She said the tech companies needed to do more and not less to control the spread of misinformation, especially on elections.

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