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Section 230 Hearing

Of course the big Section 230 hearing was a total disaster

What did you expect? A substantive policy discussion of the law that underpins the entire internet?

Of course the big Section 230 hearing was a total disaster

Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai testified virtually before the Senate Commerce Committee on Section 230.

Photo: Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

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.

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.

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Cole Burston/Bloomberg

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Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
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