Big tech CEOs defend Section 230 in acrimonious Senate hearing

During a US Senate Commerce Committee hearing, CEOs of Google, Facebook, and Twitter defended a law that shields them from liability for questionable content on their platforms.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996, which protects companies from liability over content posted by users on their platforms (declaring that the company is not a ‘publisher’ of this content), is considered a foundational principle of the internet. The law is not absolute; for instance, platform providers are required to remove content which violates sex trafficking laws.

The law has come under renewed scrutiny more recently, amid debate about how to manage hate speech and disinformation campaigns amplified on social media platforms.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing quickly descended into near-farcical political mudslinging, with neither party seizing the opportunity to thoroughly question the three high-profile witnesses about Section 230.

Republican Senators largely used their speaking time to accuse the companies of anti-conservative bias and only minimally raised Section 230; President Donald Trump threatened to repeal Section 230 by executive order after Twitter added a fact-check label to one of his tweets earlier this year and tweeted “Repeal Section 230!” during the hearing. Meanwhile, Democratic senators tended to focus on lack of proactive action taken against hate speech and false information.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai (who all appeared via video link) agreed that Section 230 is crucial to protecting free expression online, as it gives them the means to strike a balance between protecting free speech and moderating inappropriate content. All CEOs denied that their platforms act as publishers.

Several Republican Senators criticised Twitter for blocking an unverified New York Post story about Joe Biden’s son. Republican Senator Ted Cruz – who raised his voice to a shout during the hearing – accused the CEOs of being “the greatest threat to free speech in America”. He accused Dorsey of controlling “what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear” after Dorsey denied that Twitter influences democratic processes.

Zuckerberg said that he would support certain changes to the law – for instance, encouraging lawmakers more say in what content should be considered unacceptable to host – although warned that platforms may end up practising more censorship out of caution if Section 230 is repealed. While all three CEOs indicated that they would be open to limited changes to Section 230, they strongly rejected its repeal or deeper changes which could make them liable for content posted on their platforms.

Republican Committee Chair Roger Wicker said that the “free pass” to censor politically unfavourable content must end.

“This liability shield has been pivotal in protecting online platforms from endless and potentially ruinous lawsuits. It has also given these internet platforms the ability to control, stifle, and even censor content in whatever manner meets their respective standards,” said Wicker. “The time has come for that free pass to end.”

Democratic Senator Brian Schatz said that the hearing – which had been hastily arranged to take place before next week’s election – was “bullying and […] for electoral purposes”. Democratic Senators Tammy Baldwin, Amy Klobuchar, and Ed Markey agreed that the hearing had been held to support Trump’s re-election push.

Baldwin questioned Zuckerberg on Facebook’s failure to remove the “Kenosha Guard” group, which was actively plotting violence. Zuckerberg said that Facebook has stopped recommending groups to join based on political interests, and is working to more tightly monitor private groups.