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The Best And Worst Moments In The Senate’s Grilling Of Social-Media CEOs

Forbes | Rob Pegoraro

The Senate Commerce Committee staged an airing of grievances Wednesday with Big Tech. This hearing didn’t go too well for the chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter—or many of the senators challenging those CEOs and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which exempts online platforms from most liability for their users’ posts.

Close to four hours of committee members grilling Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey yielded such grandstanding moments as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) calling the trio “the single greatest threat to free speech in America.”

But it also yielded points of clarity that stand out a day later.

Yes, social-media enforcement is uneven

Republicans took turns hitting Twitter for labeling President Trump’s tweets violating rules on election integrity and pandemic response while being more lax about misinformation or hate speech from the Chinese Communist Party and Iranian ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei.

That’s a fair point that Dorsey rebutted poorly by saying “We believe it’s important for everyone to hear from global leaders” and dismissing Khamenei’s anti-Semitic rants as “saber-rattling.”

Dorsey did admit fault for Twitter blocking a New York Post story alleging incriminating emails found on a laptop of Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Saying Twitter didn’t want to fuel hack-and-leak operations, Dorsey called that decision “incorrect.”

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) countered that social platforms “bent over backwards and overcompensated” to address Republican pressure.

He didn’t specify Facebook, but these lines describe its groveling before the GOP: “You’ve hired Republican operatives, hosted private dinners with Republican leaders, and in contravention of your terms of service, given special dispensation to right-wing voices and even throttled progressive journalism.”

Facebook still wants to be a platform for all ideas

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) reminded the witnesses of past professions of political neutrality. Dorsey and Pichai responded that their firms don’t moderate content based on political ideology, but Zuckerberg went further by falling back on his least-convincing incantation. 

“Our north star, and what we intend to do, is to be a platform for all ideas and to give everyone a voice,” Zuckerberg replied.

Facebook’s actions say otherwise. Its community-standards document bans many kinds of hate speech, so racist ideas are out and bigots don’t get a voice. It now bans Holocaust denial and support for domestic-terrorism “militia” and the QAnon collective delusion.

Those are correct calls on ethical and business grounds. Facebook doesn’t owe a platform to unhinged bigots—and its advertisers don’t want to appear next to them.

CDA 230 doesn’t just cover Big Tech

Calls to rewrite CDA 230—or abolish it, as Biden and President Trump have urged—often focus on the social networks’ immense size today. But one committee member reminded viewers that this law covers startups too.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) asked the three firms how much they spend on content moderation and defending lawsuits over it. After vague replies (Zuckerberg’s “upwards of 3 or maybe even more billions of dollars a year” was most specific), he noted that “Whatever the numbers are, you indicate that they are significant.”

Curtailing CDA 230 protections wouldn’t just affect them, Moran continued.

“They will not be any less expensive […] for startups and small businesses,” he (Moran) said. “As we develop our policies in regard to this topic, I want to make certain that entrepreneurship, startup businesses and small business are considered.”

Twitter commits to algorithmic choice

Dorsey departed from Zuckerberg and Pichai in endorsing one specific change. In his opening statement, he said social networks should document their content-moderation process, provide “straightforward” appeals processes—and let users opt out of their content-ranking algorithms.

Twitter already includes a button providing a strictly-chronological view of tweets (you cannot, however, make this your default), but Dorsey said the company wanted to let users plug in outside filters.

“Enabling people to choose algorithms created by third parties to rank and filter their content is an incredibly energizing idea that’s in reach,” he said, noting research by computer scientist Stephen Wolfram.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said later that he did not want reformed moderation to come via Washington dictate: “You cannot unsubscribe from government censors.”

Exhuming McCarthy

The hearing reached its nadir when Republicans asked how many conservatives worked at the three firms, a flip of the script of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) demanding how many Communists worked in various agencies.

When Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) requested an ideological breakdown, they professed not to know specifics. (State law in California, home of all three firms, frowns on inspecting employees’ politics.)

Dorsey said “it’s not something I look for,” Zuckerberg allowed that his workforce “skews left-leaning,” and Pichai said Google’s internal forums include boards for Republicans and conservatives.

Earlier, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) observed how often the GOP holds fund-raisers in her state: “You know darn well that there are plenty of Republicans that work in high-tech firms.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) then outdid Johnson by asking Pichai if he had fired a specific employee for political speech. “He has had very unkind things to say about me, and I was just wondering if you all had still kept him working there,” she inquired.

Pichai refrained from telling Blackburn that she was out of line—or reminding her of the $9.5 million Google’s political action committee gave to her campaigns.