Tech CEOs clash with lawmakers in contentious hearing

The chief executives of Silicon Valley’s most influential tech companies fielded markedly partisan questions Wednesday in a high-profile hearing less than a week before an election where their content moderation decisions have become a campaign issue.

Members of the Senate Commerce Committee largely stayed away from the advertised purpose of the hearing — discussing a federal statute that provides a liability shield for internet companies for content posted on their sites by third parties and lets them make "good faith" efforts to moderate content — and instead used the venue to engage in political attacks.

For Republicans, most of those attacks were focused on lobbing unfounded allegations of anti-conservative bias at the witnesses: Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark ZuckerbergMark Zuckerberg'Facebook Papers' turn up heat on embattled social media platform TikTok, Snapchat executives to make Capitol Hill debuts Facebook whistleblower 'shocked' at focus on metaverse MORE and Google’s Sundar Pichai.

ADVERTISEMENT

Committee Chairman Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerPennsylvania Republican becomes latest COVID-19 breakthrough case in Congress Senate Republicans raise concerns about TSA cyber directives for rail, aviation 6 in 10 say Biden policies responsible for increasing inflation: poll MORE (R-Miss.) set the tone for Republicans when he spent his opening round of questioning needling Dorsey about his company’s decisions on when to label tweets.

“Mr. Dorsey, your platform allows foreign dictators to post propaganda, typically without restriction, yet you typically restrict the president of the United States,” Wicker said, pointing to tweets by Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that remain on the platform.

Dorsey, in defending his company’s policies, noted that Twitter has attached labels to Khamenei’s posts, just like it has with some of President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE’s. But unlike Trump, some of Khamenei’s tweets have been removed.

The Twitter CEO did, however, acknowledge his company mishandling of a recent New York Post story about Hunter Biden with dubious sourcing. Twitter initially prevented the spread of the article on its platform, sparking particularly harsh criticism from conservatives.

In a heated exchange Wednesday, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE (R-Texas) asked Dorsey: “Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear?”

Dorsey said that’s not what Twitter is doing, adding that his company wants to be more transparent about its policies.

ADVERTISEMENT

Several Republicans at the hearing focused on the ideological makeup of Silicon Valley, suggesting the deck is stacked against conservatives. Zuckerberg said his staff might skew left and Pichai said Google was probably the same, based on the areas they recruit from. Dorsey said he didn’t ask potential hires about their political affiliations.

All three insisted that the personal opinions of their workers did not affect platform moderation decisions.

While most GOP committee members stuck to similar questions about Twitter’s content moderation decisions — of the 81 questions asked by Republicans, 69 were about censorship, according to a New York Times tally — very few of them related to Section 230, the provision in the 1996 Communications Decency Act that was meant to be the focus of the hearing.

In his opening remarks, made public Tuesday, Zuckerberg revealed for the first time that he was open to amending the statute.

On Wednesday, Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerSenate Republicans raise concerns about TSA cyber directives for rail, aviation Austin, Milley to testify on Afghanistan withdrawal After messy Afghanistan withdrawal, questions remain MORE (R-Neb.) asked him what kind of changes he would like to see in Section 230.

Zuckerberg responded that he would want to see more transparency around content moderation, a notion that Dorsey also backed.

Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoProviding affordable housing to recruit our next generation of volunteer firefighters Biden's soft touch with Manchin, Sinema frustrates Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (R-W.Va.) asked the CEOs whether they would support clarifying a clause in Section 230 that allows platforms to act on “otherwise objectionable” content.

All three said they were in favor of keeping the phrase, arguing it allows them to moderate hate speech, election misinformation and other unpredictable dangerous content.

Democrats, for their part, spent much of their time criticizing the timing — less than a week before Election Day — and went after Republicans for focusing on allegations of political bias on social media platforms.

Democrats, however, voted last month to subpoena the tech executives for Wednesday’s hearing.

The stark partisan divide at the hearing comes after both parties largely celebrated the Justice Department suing Google over antitrust concerns and the release of a lengthy report by the House Judiciary Committee on digital marketplace competition that at least got bipartisan agreement on big tech companies having monopoly power.

But any sense of bipartisanship was absent Wednesday.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzClimate advocates turn sights on Wall Street To sustain humanity COP26 must lead on both climate and biodiversity Democrats struggle to sell Biden plan amid feuding MORE (D-Hawaii) declined to ask any questions, instead using his allotted time to explain how the debate over Section 230 has become increasingly partisan.

"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," he 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."

Sens. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyTikTok, Snapchat executives to make Capitol Hill debuts The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Democrats inch closer to legislative deal Six big off-year elections you might be missing MORE (D-Mass.) and Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthProgressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program Senate Democrats ditch Hyde amendment for first time in decades Building back better by investing in workers and communities MORE (D-Ill.) both argued that the hearing, just six days before Election Day, was being used to coerce platforms into not moderating misinformation being driven by Trump and other conservatives.

“Today, Trump, his Republican allies in Congress and propaganda parrots at Fox News are peddling a myth. And today, my Republican colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee are simply doing the president’s bidding,” the Massachusetts lawmaker said. “[They] are determined to feed a false narrative about anti-conservative bias meant to intimidate big tech so it will stand idly by and allow interference in our election again.”

Duckworth added: “It makes my blood boil, and it also breaks my heart a little, to watch my GOP colleagues sink to the level of Trump.”