Senate Holds Section 230 Hearing With Tech Giants

On Wednesday, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (R- Miss.) held a hearing entitled, “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?” to examine if Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act applies to big tech companies. The hearing examined proposed legislation to amend the Act, increasing the accountability and transparency regarding content moderation for the tech giants and the impact of the ad-tech platforms on local journalism and consumer privacy. Moreover, the hearing considered unintended consequences of Section 230’s liability shield and how to act going forward.

For the hearing, the Senate committee subpoenaed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Sundar Pichai the CEO of Alphabet Inc. the parent company of Google was also a witness at today’s hearing.

As an opening remark, Sen. Wicker stated, “We have convened this morning to continue the work of this Committee to ensure that the internet remains a free and open space, and that the laws that govern it are sufficiently up to date. The internet is a great American success story, thanks in large part to the regulatory and legal structure our government put in place. But we cannot take that success for granted. The openness and freedom of the internet are under attack.” Sen. Wicker noted that it is important to hear from these witnesses to reform the legislation. “There is little dispute that Section 230 played a critical role in the early development and growth of online platforms. Section 230 gave content providers protection from liability to remove and moderate content that they or their users consider to be ‘obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.’ This liability shield has been pivotal in protecting online platforms from endless and potentially ruinous lawsuits. But it has also given these internet platforms the ability to control, stifle, and even censor content in whatever manner meets their respective ‘standards.’ The time has come for that free pass to end.”

Meanwhile, Ranking Member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D -Wash.)  stated, “I believe that discussion and discourse today should be broader than just 230. There are issues of privacy that our committee has addressed and issues of how to make sure there is a free and competitive news market… So I hope that as we talk about 230 today and we hear from the witnesses on the progress that they have made in making sure that disinformation is not allowed online, that we will also consider ways to help build and strengthen that.”

In his testimony, Dorsey noted that “Section 230 is the Internet’s most important law for free speech and safety. Weakening Section 230 protections will remove critical speech from the Internet.” Dorsey added that “Twitter’s purpose is to serve the public conversation…We do our work recognizing that free speech and safety are interconnected and can sometimes be at odds. We must ensure that all voices can be heard, and we continue to make improvements to our service so that everyone feels safe participating in the public conversation—whether they are speaking or simply listening.” Specifically, Dorsey noted that Twitter seeks to earn the public’s trust through: “transparency,” “fair processes,” “empowering algorithmic choice,” and “protecting the privacy of the people who use our service.” Furthermore, Dorsey asserted that “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.” Dorsey claimed that “removing Section 230 will remove speech from the internet.” Dorsey proposed solutions to the Committee’s concerns, particularly those around content moderation in good faith. Dorsey suggested: “expansions to Section 230, new legislative frameworks, or commitment to industry-wide self-regulation.”

Meanwhile, Pichai testified that “the internet has been one of the world’s most important equalizers. Information can be shared—and knowledge can flow—from anyone, to anywhere. But the same low barriers to entry also make it possible for bad actors to cause harm.” Pichai claimed that Google’s mission “is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, Google is deeply conscious of both the opportunities and risks the internet creates.” Pichai stated that “We feel a deep responsibility to keep the people who use our products safe and secure, and have long invested in innovative tools to prevent abuse of our services…We are equally committed to protecting the quality and integrity of information on our platforms, and supporting our democracy in a non-partisan way.” Moreover, Pichai contented that Google aims to “protect people who use our products from harmful content and to be transparent about how we do that.”

Pichai argued that Google is only able to provide access to an array of information “because of existing legal frameworks, like Section 230,” which Pichai stated “has been foundational to US leadership in the tech sector” because “Section 230 protects the freedom to create and share content while supporting the ability of platforms and services of all sizes to responsibly address harmful content.”

Lastly, Zuckerberg, in his testimony, asserted that “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together…We know we have a responsibility to make sure people using our products can do so safely, and we work hard to enforce policies that meet this goal.” Zuckerberg claimed that Section 230 allows Facebook to be because it “encourages free expression” and “allows platforms to moderate content” without facing liability “for doing even basic moderation, such as removing hate speech.” 

Zuckerberg claimed that “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, and I look forward to a meaningful dialogue about how we might update the law to deal with the problems we face today…At Facebook, we don’t think tech companies should be making so many decisions about these important issues alone. I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators, which is why in March last year I called for regulation on harmful content, privacy, elections, and data portability.” Zuckerberg also noted that if Section 230 is repealed online platforms are more likely to increase censorship to avoid litigation.

All of the CEOs agreed that companies should be liable if acting as a publisher.

Prior to the hearing, Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai expressed his desire to reform Section 230, the Department of Justice proposed legislation to reform Section 230, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) proposed legislation to limit Section 230 immunity for online companies that use behavioral advertising practices, and Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) introduced legislation to reform Section 230. These efforts for Section 230 reform stem from President Trump’s Executive Order calling to reform the legislation.