At Hearing, Senate Republicans Lash Out at Twitter, Facebook, Google CEOs Over ‘Censorship’

A Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday about a U.S. law that shields internet companies from liability over content posted to their platforms — predictably — mainly provided a venue for GOP members to slam the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google for allegedly censoring conservative viewpoints and information.

The execs of the three tech companies — Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai — appeared via teleconference before the Senate committee.

The Republican line of attack zeroed in on Twitter’s recent move to block users from tweeting a series of New York Post articles about Hunter Biden. The unverified Post stories, purportedly based on info from Rudy Giuliani harvested from a laptop abandoned in Delaware computer-repair shop, alleged that Hunter influenced his father, Joe Biden, into putting pressure on Ukraine officials to fire a prosecutor probing the energy firm for which Hunter was a board member. Another asserted Hunter tried to cut his father in on a sweetheart deal with a Chinese energy firm.

In a combative exchange with Twitter chief Jack Dorsey, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) rhetorically asked, “Mr. 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 responded, “I hear the concerns and acknowledge them” but denied that Twitter favors Democratic causes. The Twitter CEO said the company blocked the Post stories because they violated its “hacked materials” policy, before the social-media network revised that policy to allow tweets that discuss hacked material and label (instead of block) posts that link to such content.

Republicans, and many Democrats, have called for reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which as it stands allows internet companies to remove content that is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable” without being exposed to legal liability.

But Democratic senators complained that the nearly four-hour Senate hearing was a farce, designed to score political points and intimidate the internet CEOs into being more lenient in enforcing their content policies. Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) called it “a sham” and accused Republicans of trying “to bully the CEOs of private companies into carrying out a hit job on a presidential candidate.”

Republicans had called for the hearing, which took place less than a week before Election Day, after the controversy over the NY Post story erupted. The hearing was titled, “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?”

President Trump has repeatedly called for the revocation of Section 230 protections for social networks that “censor” speech. In May, after Facebook and Twitter had fact-checked or removed some of his posts for policy violations, Trump issued an executive order directing the FCC to create new regulations under Section 230 that would remove the legal liability shield for social networks that “engage in censoring or any political conduct.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, earlier this month announced an official proceeding to consider such a change, while critics have said the commission has no legal authority to do so. And last month Attorney General William Barr sent draft legislation to Congress that would limit which currently shield internet companies from legal liability for content posted on their platforms.

It’s certainly not the last fiery scrutiny tech giants will face from Congress, regardless of what happens in the 2020 elections.

Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee issued a report summing up an antitrust probe into four Big Tech companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. The 449-page report by the Democrat-led committee urged Congress to enact new laws to curb the companies’ power, including laws that would further empower regulators to crack down on anticompetitive behavior as well as impose “structural separations” on tech giants to prohibit dominant platforms from entering adjacent lines of business.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department last week filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, alleging the search giant has abused its monopoly position to the harm of consumers and competitors. Google SVP of global affairs and chief legal officer Kent Walker called the DOJ lawsuit “deeply flawed” and asserted that the remedies it proposes wouldn’t do anything to help consumers.

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