Senate Republicans Target Twitter And Other Tech CEOs, While Democrats See A Partisan “Sham”

Ted Johnson
·4 min read

The latest news out of the latest congressional hearing on tech platforms’ content moderation practices was from Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, who said that he’s open to a rethink of Section 230.

That’s the provision of a 1996 law that gives Facebook, Twitter, Google and other platforms immunity for the way that they moderate third-party content.

But just six days before a presidential election, the Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday with Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Alphabet-Google CEO Sundar Pichai was, for anyone who’s been following this stuff, exactly what you would think.

One after another, Republicans griped that their voices were being stifled on the platforms, with inconsistently deployed policies or what a number of lawmakers see as bias against the right (counterpoint: Facebook’s top performing links over the past 24 hours).

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who promoted the hearing with a meme akin to a prizefight, didn’t disappoint as he declared, “The three witnesses we have before this committee collectively pose I believe the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections.”

Then he focused on the long-bearded Dorsey, as he blasted Twitter for limiting the reach of the New York Post story on Hunter Biden. Dorsey admitted earlier this month that its approach was initially clunky, but defended their continued restrictions on the Post account because of violations to its hacked materials policy. He said that they could have their account unlocked if they removed a tweet in question.

“Mr. Dorsey, who the hell elected you? … Why do you insist on operating as a Democratic super PAC silencing the news contrary to your political beliefs?” Cruz asked.

“We are not doing that, and this is why I opened this hearing with calls for more transparency. We realize we need to earn trust more,” Dorsey responded.

A little less combative was when Dorsey faced the committee’s chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), over Twitter’s labeling of some of President Donald Trump’s tweets but not incendiary posts from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

As protests erupted following the death of George Floyd in May, Trump tweeted, “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter flagged the tweet as glorifying violence. But some critics pounced, including FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who pointed to the lack of action against Khamenei’s tweets.

“We did not find those to violate our terms of service, because we considered them saber-rattling,” Dorsey said, while adding that “speech against our own people, or our country’s own citizens” is different because it “can cause more immediate harm.”

While Democrats had their own criticisms of the CEOs, focused on the inability of the platforms to curb the flow of misinformation, they also targeted the timing of the hearing.

“The Republican majority is politicizing what actually should not be a partisan topic,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) was more direct, what he said was a partisan “play” to pressure platforms not to take steps to curb misinformation and incendiary posts in advance of the election. “We have to call this hearing what it is: It’s a sham.”

The takeaway from the hearing is that, likely well into the next Congress, the debate over Section 230 will continue. The trouble now is that both parties have different ideas of what is wrong with the immunity protections.

“Democrats often say that we don’t remove enough content, and Republicans often say that we remove too much,” Zuckerberg said at one point.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who joined with her Republican colleagues in claiming anti-conservative bias, even asked Pichai whether they were still employing someone who “has had very unkind things to say about me.”

The FCC is moving forward with a proposal to “clarify” Section 230, after Trump issued an executive order calling for such changes after Twitter slapped labels on two of his tweets for the first time in May. But one of the Republican commissioners, Michael O’Rielly, has expressed doubts about changes that would put the government in the position of dictating a platform’s content moderation practices. After O’Rielly expressed his views, Trump withdrew his name from nomination for another FCC term, and instead has put forward a different nominee, Nathan Simington,.

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