Technology

House lawmakers fired up for hearing with tech CEOs

Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai
Greg Nash/Getty Images

The CEOs of the country’s biggest social media platforms will testify Thursday before a Congress eager to press them on their roles spreading misinformation related to coronavirus and the leadup to the deadly insurrection at the Capitol in January.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai will appear remotely in front of two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees set to take a markedly different tone from previous hearings.

“We are done with conversation,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, said at an event Monday. “We are now moving ahead with regulation and legislation, and that is inevitable. We want them to understand how seriously they better take this.”

The hearing will likely focus on the part the massive platforms play in spreading potentially dangerous misinformation — ranging from election result conspiracies to lies about the coronavirus vaccine — and a suite of proposed and forthcoming legislative fixes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives platforms liability protection from content posted by third parties and allows them to safely moderate.

All three companies have highlighted their work on content moderation and new policies recently, hinting at how they will approach the hearing.

Facebook published a blog by Guy Rosen, its vice president of integrity, on Monday that outlined efforts to take down fake accounts, fact-check content and remove coronavirus misinformation across its platforms.

YouTube earlier this month revealed that it took down 30,000 videos with COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.

Twitter rolled out a policy for labeling vaccine misinformation posts and implemented a strike system for broader coronavirus misinformation that could see accounts suspended or removed for repeated violations.

The storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 that left five people dead will undoubtedly be a focus of questioning, at least by Democrats.

Social media was rife with both planning of the event and the falsehood — that former President Trump was robbed of a second term — that seemingly motivated many of the participants.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) sent a letter along with the 22 other Democrats on the panel to Zuckerberg earlier this month raising concerns about Facebook’s role in boosting dangerous information ahead of the January attack.

Pallone, Schakowsky and Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), the chairman of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, sent a letter to Pichai around the same time pressing the CEO about YouTube allegedly promoting extremist content.

Democrats on the committee have also sent letters to Facebook, Google and Twitter about efforts to contain coronavirus misinformation.

The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), has led letters to all three platforms this month asking if they coordinated content removal decisions and for greater clarity on how they handle political content.

The hearing also comes the same week the nonprofit group Avaaz identified 267 pages and groups on Facebook, with a total of 32 million followers, that shared content glorifying violence. Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told The Hill that only 18 of the pages and groups violated company policies. Those have since been taken down.

But Avaaz’s campaigns director, Fadi Quran, told The Hill that Facebook was “very slow” in taking action.

“We’ve done more than any other internet company to combat harmful content, having already banned nearly 900 militarized social movements and removed tens of thousands of QAnon pages, groups and accounts from our apps,” Stone said.

Despite Facebook’s and the other platforms’ efforts to tackle these issues, lawmakers remain skeptical.

Lawmakers are also likely to spend some time in the hearing brandishing their legislative proposals to amend Section 230, a bipartisan concern, although the parties are split on how to approach reform.

Schakowsky is set to unveil later this week the Online Consumer Protection Act, which would allow the Federal Trade Commission and consumers to sue platforms that violate their terms of service.

“Our members are very enthusiastic right now and anxious to go,” she said Monday.

Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) are also set to reintroduce a proposal later this week that would strip Section 230 protections when platforms’ algorithms promote harmful or extremist content.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who has captained the Democrats’ approach to antitrust in the context of Big Tech, is readying a bill on the issue that also focuses on algorithmic amplification, a spokesperson confirmed to The Hill.

Proposals from Democrats in the Senate will also likely come up.

The Safe Tech Act, proposed by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), gained some momentum as a potential light-touch reform to the controversial law.

“Section 230 was well intentioned at its outset as a tool for this emerging industry of content providers and online platforms who wanted to do a little bit of self-moderation,” Warner said on a panel hosted by Protocol on Monday. “We’ve seen that evolve into an almost blanket immunity or ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card for large online providers who want to do nothing about foreseeable, obvious and repeated misuse of their platforms.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Anna Eshoo Cathy McMorris Rodgers David Cicilline Donald Trump Jan Schakowsky Mark Warner Mark Zuckerberg mark zuckerberg jack dorsey sundar pichai facebook twitter google ceo big tech hearing misinformation content moderation control Mazie Hirono Mike Doyle Tom Malinowski

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