yes-other-
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

Where should we send your daily tech briefing?

×
Live:
Section 230 hearing updates

Even before the Senate Commerce Committee's big Section 230 hearing kicked off on Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was promoting it like a WWE matchup between a hero and a heel. "The free speech champion takes on the czar of censorship," Cruz crowed Tuesday night in a tweet pushing a "Cruz v. Dorsey Free Speech Showdown."

It didn't take long Wednesday for the pro wrestling analogy to pan out: The hearing, featuring the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google, was just as messy and about as intellectually stimulating. There was shouting. There were props. There was talk of strangling dogs and working refs and at least one excessively unkempt beard.

Get daily insights from the Protocol team in your inbox

But over the course of the entire four-hour flogging, there was not much by way of substantive discussion of Section 230.

The hearing was, like so many hearings before it, just another opportunity for Republicans on the committee to accuse the tech leaders before them of liberal bias and for the Democrats on the committee to accuse the Republicans of partisan bullying. It also seemed like a great opportunity for Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to put to use what he's learned on all of those silent meditation retreats.

Though he was accompanied, virtually, by Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, Dorsey bore the brunt of the committee's questions. That was no accident. Twitter has been the most aggressive tech company in moderating President Trump's social media activity recently. Over the summer, Twitter took its first step toward reining in the president's tweets when it put warning labels on his tweets about mail-in ballots and shooting looters in Minnesota. That prompted President Trump to rush through an executive order, instructing various government agencies to rethink Section 230 protections.

Earlier this month, Twitter took a more heavy-handed approach to a viral New York Post story about Vice President Joe Biden's son, temporarily blocking anyone from so much as posting the story to Twitter. Twitter later reversed its stance on the Post story, and Dorsey acknowledged the company's mistake. That didn't stop the Republicans on the committee from repeatedly skewering that and other content moderation decisions Twitter has made recently.

But Dorsey, who in past appearances before Congress has repeatedly copped to Twitter's mistakes, instead defended many of Twitter's recent decisions that the committee's members raised. In one instance, committee chair Roger Wicker asked Dorsey why Twitter took action on President Trump's tweets before labeling another tweet from a Chinese communist party spokesperson, which falsely claimed that COVID-19 was being spread by the U.S. military.

Dorsey calmly stated that while the company did eventually label the COVID-19 tweet, Twitter prioritizes enforcement based on the "severity" of potential offline harm. "There are certainly things that we can do much faster," Dorsey said. "But generally, we believe that the policy was enforced in a timely manner, and in the right regard."

Dorsey similarly defended the company's decision not to take action on violently anti-Semitic tweets by Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei, in which he called for the removal of the "Zionist regime" through "armed resistance." "We did not find those to violate our terms of service, because we consider them saber rattling, which is part of the speech of world leaders in concert with other countries," Dorsey said.

He added that the company had labeled President Trump's tweets about shooting looters in Minnesota, however, because "speech against our own people, or a country's own citizens, we believe is different and can cause more immediate harm."

The attention on Dorsey and on Twitter shielded Zuckerberg and Pichai from much scrutiny, save for a few tense moments when members pushed all three witnesses to say which newspapers they've fact-checked, which Democrats' posts have been suppressed and whether their employees were mostly conservative or liberal. The three CEOs mostly hedged or promised to follow up, though Zuckerberg conceded that his staff "skews left-leaning."

None of these cherry-picked examples from Republicans or questions designed to cast tech companies as arms of the Democratic Party did much to shed light on Section 230 or the updates that both parties agree it needs. Not that Democrats added much more to the discourse. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii declined to ask any questions at all, calling the hearing "an attempt to bully the CEOs of private companies into carrying out a hit job on a presidential candidate by making sure they push out foreign and domestic misinformation meant to influence the election."

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana called some of the Republicans' accusations "baloney, folks."

That may be true. But it doesn't mean there aren't lots of real, hard questions about Section 230 to be asked of these powerful men. With a handful of exceptions, questions about the actual law were scarce.

In fact, the most substantive proposals for how to update Section 230 came from Dorsey himself, who laid out a three-point plan for expanding Section 230, including requiring tech platforms to publish their moderation guidelines, institute an appeals process and create a system by which people could choose the algorithms that filter and rank content on their feeds.

These, of course, would be relatively easy for Twitter, Facebook and Google to comply with, as all of those companies already publish their guidelines and allow for appeals. And none of those updates would address the problem of, say, revenge porn sites being protected from liability under Section 230 or dating apps willfully ignoring the offline harassment their users are facing as a result of their online connections.

But after four hours of fighting, those proposals are as far as anyone got. And who could be surprised? Cruz, after all, didn't promise solutions. He only promised a show.

Every congressional hearing with the tech CEOs has been rife with promises they will "get back" to lawmakers on questions they either can't or don't want to answer.

Here are a few of the questions Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai pledged to follow up on privately.

"Facebook is proactively working with law enforcement to disrupt real-world violent attempts that stem from some of that activity that originated on your platform. Can you tell me specifically how many threats have you proactively referred to local or state law enforcement?"

Get daily insights from the Protocol team in your inbox

Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, spent his seven minutes politely questioning Zuckerberg about the spread of violent extremism on Facebook and how it can lead to real-world harm. He cited the recent attempted kidnapping of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, which was in part organized on Facebook.

Facebook has said it started proactively communicating with law enforcement about the militia group behind the kidnapping plot at least six months ago and it was removed from the platform on June 30.

Zuckerberg said he doesn't "know the number" of proactive referrals it has made to law enforcement about alarming extremist activity but pledged to "follow up with you on that."

"It is increasingly common that our systems are able to detect when there's potential issues," Zuckerberg said.

"Have you seen a reduction in your platform's facilitation of extremist group recruitment?"

An internal Facebook study in 2016 found that 64% of people joining extremist groups on Facebook were due to its own recommendation tools, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report. Since then, Facebook has changed some of its policies and approaches to extremism and online radicalization.

When Peters asked if Facebook has seen a reduction in that activity since it has changed its policies over the past four years, Zuckerberg said he wasn't "familiar" with the study but would get the senator "more information on the scope of those activities."

"How much are your companies currently spending defending lawsuits related to user content?"

None of the CEOs was able to answer this. "I can get back to you," Zuckerberg said.

"We spend a lot on legal lawsuits but not sure what of it applies to content-related issues, but happy to follow up," Pichai said. Dorsey said he didn't "have those numbers."

Republican Sen. Jerry Moran said he wanted to use their answers to "highlight" a tension in the conversation: It could be extremely costly for businesses smaller than Google, Twitter and Facebook to afford the amount of lawsuits that most Section 230 reforms would enable.

"Whatever the numbers are, you indicate they're significant — an enormous amount of money and employee time, contract labor time in dealing with modification of content," Moran said. "These efforts are expensive, and I'd highlight for my colleagues the committee that they wouldn't be any less expensive — perhaps less in scale but not less in cost — for startups and small businesses."

"Gotcha" questions about anti-conservative bias

Each of the CEOs diligently pledged they would "follow up" with various GOP senators over questions related to conservative bias. Dorsey said he would get back to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker about how long it took to take down a particular tweet from a Chinese communist party leader. Zuckerberg pledged to follow up with Sen. John Thune with a list of articles that Facebook has "suppressed" and to discuss a "former Biden staffer" who deals with election-related content at Facebook.

Each of the CEOs spent some time debunking allegations that they routinely censor right-wing voices, but they punted on the vast majority of opportunities to hammer home that message.

More than three hours into today's Section 230 hearing, the CEOs were finally given the opportunity to get into some specifics around Section 230, the purported subject of their testimony before Congress. For a few moments, at least.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito asked Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai about how they define the "otherwise objectionable" content protected by Section 230. (Section 230 provides immunity to platforms that remove content they deem "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable.")

Get daily insights from the Protocol team in your inbox

Zuckerberg warned against proposals that tweak that language. "Some of the things we bucket in 'otherwise objectionable' content today include general bullying and harassment of people on the platform," Zuckerberg said. "Now, we worry that some of the proposals that suggest getting rid of the phrase 'otherwise objectionable' from Section 230 would limit our ability to remove bullying and harassing activity from our platforms, which would make them worse places for people."

Pichai agreed, saying that the current language provides Google with "flexibility."

Capito then asked the executives to discuss how Section 230 protects small businesses, an argument that she said makes her "skeptical," considering how few rivals there are to Facebook, Twitter and Google. Zuckerberg said it was "important" to ensure that Section 230 reform does not encumber small companies just being built, and suggested a legislative fix that would exempt those companies from compliance.

Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner focused his questioning in today's Section 230 hearing on Twitter, pressing Jack Dorsey on whether Twitter has policies prohibiting Holocaust denialism.

"Somebody deny[ing] the Holocaust has happened is not misinformation?" Gardner asked the Twitter CEO.

"It's misleading information, but we don't have a policy against that type of misleading information," Dorsey replied.

But that's not quite true. Earlier this month, Twitter told Bloomberg that the company would remove Holocaust denial posts under its hateful conduct policy, which prohibits attempts to "deny or diminish" violent events. "We also have a robust glorification of violence policy in place and take action against content that glorifies or praises historical acts of violence and genocide, including the Holocaust," a Twitter spokesperson told Protocol Wednesday.

Gardner's line of questioning was prompted by tweets from Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei that call for "the elimination of the Zionist regime," but did not directly deny that the Holocaust happened. Gardner asked Dorsey why Twitter had left the Ayatollah's tweets untouched, but had attached warning labels to another tweet, in which President Trump threatened to shoot looters following the killing of George Floyd by police. According to Dorsey, the Ayatollah's tweets didn't violate Twitter's policies, while Trump's did. "We consider them saber rattling, which is part of the speech world leaders of world leaders in concert with other countries," Dorsey said of the Ayatollah's tweets. "Speech against our own people, or a country's own citizens, we believe, is different and can cause more immediate harm."

Get daily insights from the Protocol team in your inbox

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, one of the most outspoken tech critics in the Senate, declined to use his seven minutes to question the tech CEOs, calling the hearing a "scar on this committee and the U.S. Senate" and an "embarrassment."

"What we are seeing today is an attempt to bully the CEOs of private companies into carrying out a hit job on a presidential candidate by making sure they push out foreign and domestic misinformation meant to influence the election," Schatz said.

Get daily insights from the Protocol team in your inbox

"I have plenty of questions for the witnesses on Section 230, on antitrust, on privacy, on anti-Semitism, on their relationship with journalism. But we have to call this hearing what it is: It's a sham," Schatz said. "For the first time in my eight years in the United States Senate, I'm not going to use my time to ask any questions because this is nonsense."

Instead, Schatz used his time to describe how the issue of Section 230 has become politicized by Republicans.

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner defended Section 230 in the middle of his line of questioning, even as he railed against the social media companies for their content moderation decisions.

"We have to be very careful and not rush to legislate in ways that stifle speech," Gardner said. "Congress should be focused on encouraging speech, not restricting it."

"The Constitution demands that we remember it," he added.

Get daily insights from the Protocol team in your inbox

His comments came after Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker also expressed hesitance about paring back the law, bucking President Trump's calls to "repeal 230."

In brief opening remarks at the hearing, Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey said he supports a three-point plan to preserve Section 230 protections for online platforms, but would also increase transparency and choice for consumers. "There are three solutions we'd like to propose to address the concerns raised, all focused on services that decide to moderate or remove content," Dorsey said. "It could be expansions to Section 230, new legislative frameworks, or a commitment to industry-wide self regulation."

Get daily insights from the Protocol team in your inbox

The first proposal would entail requiring tech platforms to publish their content moderation processes, something large tech companies including Twitter already do. "How are cases reported and reviewed? How are decisions made? What tools are used to enforce?" Dorsey asked.

The second would require tech platforms to institute an appeals process that "ensures people can let us know when we don't get it right."

Finally, Dorsey proposed creating a system by which users can choose the algorithms that filter and promote content on tech platforms. This, Dorsey said, is a concept that's been supported by computer scientist Stephen Wolfram. "Much of the content people see today is determined by algorithms, with very little visibility into how they choose what they show," Dorsey said, noting that giving consumers choice would enhance that visibility.

These expansions would be relatively easy for most large tech companies to comply with. But they wouldn't address the core issues that caused Republicans to call the tech CEOs to Congress in the first place — that is, the belief, however unfounded, that tech companies are enforcing their rules unevenly.

The blockbuster hearing was forced to recess for several minutes while the committee tried to "make contact" with Zuckerberg.

"We are unable to make contact with Mark Zuckerberg," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker. "We are told by Facebook staff that he is alone and attempting to connect with this hearing."

"This is a most interesting development," Wicker said. "We're going to accommodate the request of the Facebook employees."

Get daily insights from the Protocol team in your inbox

Zuckerberg did get back online soon enough, though.

Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Jack Dorsery testify Wednesday at 7 a.m. Pacific before the SenateCommittee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, where they'll be grilled about whether their immunity under Section 230 has enabled "bad behavior."

The CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google are being hauled before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday for a hearing provocatively titled, "Does Section 230's sweeping immunity enable big tech bad behavior?"

It's certain to feature political theater and partisan bickering. But it's a prime opportunity for Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Jack Dorsey to offer their best defenses of the internet's prized liability shield — and signal what changes they'd be open to.

Get daily insights from the Protocol team in your inbox

Here are the key points the CEOs will make, according to their prepared testimony.

Sundar Pichai, Google

"Let me be clear: We approach our work without political bias, full stop. To do otherwise would be contrary to both our business interests and our mission, which compels us to make information accessible to every type of person, no matter where they live or what they believe."

"Of course, our ability to provide access to a wide range of information is only possible because of existing legal frameworks, like Section 230."

"As you think about how to shape policy in this important area, 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."

"At the end of the day, we all share the same goal: free access to information for everyone and responsible protections for people and their data. We support legal frameworks that achieve these goals."

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

"Without Section 230, platforms could potentially be held liable for everything people say. Platforms would likely censor more content to avoid legal risk and would be less likely to invest in technologies that enable people to express themselves in new ways."

"Without Section 230, platforms could face liability for doing even basic moderation, such as removing hate speech and harassment that impacts the safety and security of their communities."

"However, the debate about Section 230 shows that people of all political persuasions are unhappy with the status quo."

"I believe Congress should update the law to make sure it's working as intended. We support the ideas around transparency and industry collaboration that are being discussed in some of the current bipartisan proposals."

"We stand ready to work with Congress on what regulation could look like in these areas. By updating the rules for the internet, we can preserve what's best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms."

"I'd like to close by thanking this Committee, and particularly Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Cantwell, for your leadership on the issue of online privacy. Facebook has long supported a comprehensive federal privacy law, and we have had many constructive conversations with you and your staffs as you have crafted your proposals. I understand that there are still difficult issues to be worked out, but I am optimistic that legislators from both parties, consumer advocates, and industry all agree on many of the fundamental pieces."

Jack Dorsey, Twitter

"Procedural fairness at Twitter also means we ensure that all decisions are made without using political viewpoints, party affiliation, or political ideology, whether related to automatically ranking content on our service or how we develop or enforce the Twitter Rules. Our Twitter Rules are not based on ideology or a particular set of beliefs. We believe strongly in being impartial, and we strive to enforce our Twitter Rules fairly."

"As we consider developing new legislative frameworks, or committing to self-regulation models for content moderation, we should remember that Section 230 has enabled new companies — small ones seeded with an idea — to build and compete with established companies globally. 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."

"I do not think anyone in this room or the American people want less free speech or more abuse and harassment online. Instead, what I hear from people is that they want to be able to trust the services they are using."

"In some circumstances, sweeping regulations can further entrench companies that have large market shares and can easily afford to scale up additional resources to comply. We are sensitive to these types of competition concerns because Twitter does not have the same breadth of interwoven products or market size as compared to our industry peers."

"I believe the best way to address our mutually held concerns is to require the publication of moderation processes and practices, a straightforward process to appeal decisions, and best efforts around algorithmic choice. These are achievable in short order."