WASHINGTON (AP) — With next week’s election looming, the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google were scolded by Republicans at a Senate hearing Wednesday for alleged anti-conservative bias in the companies’ social media platforms and received a warning of coming restrictions from Congress.
Lawmakers of both parties are assessing the companies’ tremendous power to disseminate speech and ideas, and are looking to challenge their long-enjoyed bedrock legal protections for online speech.
The Trump administration, seizing on unfounded accusations of bias against conservative views, has asked Congress to strip some of the protections that have generally shielded the tech companies from legal responsibility for what people post on their platforms.
“The time has come for that free pass to end,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Wicker, R-Miss., said the laws governing online speech must be updated because “the openness and freedom of the internet are under attack.”
He spoke at the opening of the hearing as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai waited to testify via video.
Wicker cited the move this month by Facebook and Twitter to limit dissemination of an unverified political story from the conservative-leaning New York Post about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The story, which was not confirmed by other publications, cited unverified emails from Biden’s son Hunter that were reportedly disclosed by Trump allies.
Republicans led by President Donald Trump have accused the social media platforms, without evidence, of deliberately suppressing conservative, religious and anti-abortion views.
In their prepared testimony, Dorsey, Zuckerberg and Pichai addressed the proposals for changes to a provision of a 1996 law that has served as the foundation for unfettered speech on the internet. Critics in update the law to make sure it’s working as intended.”
Dorsey and Pichai urged caution in making any changes. “Undermining Section 230 will result in far more removal of online speech and impose severe limitations on our collective ability to address harmful content and protect people online,” Dorsey said.
Pichai appealed to lawmakers “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.”
The session lacked the in-person drama of star-witness proceedings before the coronavirus. The hearing room was nearly empty except for Wicker and a few colleagues, but their questioning was sharp as tempers flared among members.
“Twitter’s conduct has by far been the most egregious,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told Dorsey. Cruz cited Twitter’s limitations on the newspaper story as part of “a pattern of censorship and silencing Americans with whom Twitter disagrees.”
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, went after Republicans, saying the hearing was a “sham.”
“This is bullying,” Schatz told the CEOs. “Do not let U.S. senators bully you into carrying the water” for politicians seeking to discredit their opponents. With their questions, Schatz said, the Republicans “are trying to bully the heads of private companies into making a hit job” on political leaders