U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, will convene a hearing titled, “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?,”at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, October 28. The hearing will examine whether Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has outlived its usefulness in today’s digital age. It will also examine legislative proposals to modernize the decades-old law, increase transparency and accountability among big technology companies for their content moderation practices, and explore the impact of large ad-tech platforms on local journalism and consumer privacy. The hearing will provide an opportunity to discuss the unintended consequences of Section 230’s liability shield and how best to preserve the internet as a forum for open discourse.
- Mr. Jack Dorsey, Chief Executive Officer, Twitter
- Mr. Sundar Pichai, Chief Executive Officer, Alphabet Inc., Google
- Mr. Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Executive Officer, Facebook
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
Full Committee Hearing
This hearing will take place in the Russell Senate Office Building 253. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.
In order to maintain physical distancing as advised by the Office of the Attending Physician, seating for credentialed press will be limited throughout the course of the hearing. Due to current limited access to the Capitol complex, the general public is encouraged to view this hearing via the live stream.
*Note: All witnesses will participate remotely.
Chairman Roger Wicker
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.
Soon we will hear from the CEOs of three of the most prominent internet platforms: Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Our witnesses include:
- Mr. Jack Dorsey, of Twitter;
- Mr. Sundar Pichai, of Alphabet Incorporated and its subsidiary, Google; and
- Mr. Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook.
On October 1st, this committee voted on a bipartisan and unanimous basis to approve the issuance of subpoenas. After discussions among representatives of the companies and the committee, the witnesses agreed to attend the hearing voluntarily and remotely. There is strong agreement on both sides of the aisle that hearing from these witnesses is important to the deliberations before this committee, including deliberations on what legislative reforms are necessary to ensure a free and open internet.
For almost 25 years, the preservation of internet freedom has been the hallmark of a thriving digital economy in the United States. This success has largely been attributed to a light-touch regulatory framework and to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – often referred to as the “26 words that created the internet.”
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.
After 24 years of Section 230 being the law of the land, much has changed. The internet is no longer an emerging technology. The companies before us today are no longer scrappy startups operating out of a garage or a dorm room. They are now among the world’s largest corporations, wielding immense power in our economy, culture, and public discourse - immense power. The applications they have created are connecting the world in unprecedented ways, far beyond what lawmakers could have imagined three decades ago. These companies are controlling the overwhelming flow of news and information that the public can share and access.
One noteworthy example occurred just two weeks ago after our subpoenas were unanimously approved; the New York Post – the Countries fourth largest newspaper – ran a story revealing communications between Hunter Biden and a Ukrainian official. The report alleged that Hunter Biden facilitated a meeting with his father, Joe Biden, who was then the Vice President of the United States. Almost immediately, both Twitter and Facebook took steps to block or limit access to the story. Facebook, according to its Policy Communications Manager, began “reducing its distribution on [the] platform” pending a third-party fact check. Twitter went beyond that, blocking all users — including the House Judiciary Committee — from sharing the article on feeds and through direct messages. Twitter even locked the New York Post’s account entirely, claiming the story included “hacked materials” and was “potentially harmful.”
It is worth noting that both Twitter and Facebook’s aversion to hacked materials has not always been so stringent. For example, when the President’s tax returns were illegally leaked, neither company acted to restrict access to that information. Similarly, the now-discredited Steele dossier was widely shared without fact checking or disclaimers. This apparent double standard would be appalling under normal circumstances. But the fact that selective censorship is occurring in the midst of the 2020 election cycle dramatically amplifies the power wielded by Facebook and Twitter.
Google recently generated its own controversy when it was revealed that the company threatened to cut off several conservative websites, including the Federalist, from their ad platform. Make no mistake, for sites that rely heavily on advertising revenue for their bottom line, being blocked from Google’s services – or “demonetized” – can be a death sentence.
According to Google, the offense of these websites was hosting user-submitted comment sections that included objectionable content. But Google’s own platform, YouTube, hosts user-submitted comment sections for every video uploaded. It seems that Google is far more zealous in policing conservative sites than its own YouTube platform for the same types of offensive and outrageous language.
It is ironic, that when the subject is net neutrality technology companies, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter, have warned about the grave threat of blocking or throttling the flow of information on the internet. Meanwhile, these same companies are actively blocking and throttling the distribution of content on their own platforms and are using protections under 30 to do it. Is it any surprise that voices on the right are complaining about hypocrisy or, even worse, anti-democratic election interference.
These recent incidents are only the latest in a long trail of censorship and suppression of conservative voices on the internet. Reasonable observers are left to wonder whether big tech firms are obstructing the flow of information to benefit one political ideology or agenda.
My concern is that these platforms have become powerful arbiters of what is true and what content users can access. The American public gets little insight into the decision-making process when content is moderated, and users have little recourse when they are censored or restricted. I hope we can all agree that the issues the Committee will discuss today are ripe for thorough examination and action.
I have introduced legislation to clarify the intent of Section 230’s liability protections and increase the accountability of companies who engage in content moderation. The Online Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Act would make important changes to “right-size” the liability shield and make clear what type of content moderation is protected. This legislation would address the challenges we have discussed while still leaving fundamentals of Section 230 in place.
Although some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have characterized this as a purely partisan exercise, there is strong bipartisan support for reviewing Section 230. In fact, both presidential candidates Trump and Biden have proposed repealing Section 230 in its entirety – a position I have not yet embraced. I hope we can focus today’s discussion on the issues that affect all Americans. Protecting a true diversity of viewpoints and free discourse is central to our way of life. I look forward to hearing from today’s witnesses about what they are doing to promote transparency, accountability, and fairness in their content moderation processes. And I thank each of them for cooperating with us in the scheduling of this testimony.
I now turn to my friend and Ranking Member, Senator Cantwell, for her opening remarks.
Ranking Member Maria Cantwell
U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell
Opening Statement at Senate Commerce Committee Hearing Entitled “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?
Witnesses: Mr. Jack Dorsey, Chief Executive Officer, Twitter
Mr. Sundar Pichai, Chief Executive Officer, Alphabet Inc., Google
Mr. Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Executive Officer, Facebook
October 28, 2020
Cantwell: [no audio]…beautiful state of Washington, in my Senate office here in Washington DC that shows the various ecosystems of the state of Washington which we very much appreciate.
I bring that up because just recently, the Seattle area was named the number one STEM economy in the United States, that is, the most STEM workforce in the United States of America. So these issues about how we harness the information age to work for us, and not against us, is something that we deal with every day of the week, and we want to have discussion and discourse. 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.
I noticed today we're not calling in the NAB or the Publishers Association asking them why they haven't printed or reprinted information that you alluded to in your testimony that you wish was more broadly distributed. To have the competition in the news market is to have a diversity of voices and diversity of opinion, and in my report, just recently released, we show that true competition really does help perfect information, both for our economy, and for the health of our democracy. So I do look forward to discussing these issues today. What I do not want today's hearing to be is a chilling effect on the very important aspects of making sure that hate speech or misinformation related to health and public safety, are allowed to remain on the internet.
We all know what happened in 2016, and we had reports from the FBI, our intelligence agencies, and a bipartisan Senate committee that concluded in 2016, that Russian operatives did, masquerading as Americans, use targeted advertisements, intentionally falsified news articles, self generated content and social media platform tools to interact and attempt to deceive tens of millions of social media users in the United States. Director of National Intelligence, then Republican Senator--former Senator--Dan Coats said in July 2018, “The warning lights are blinking red that the digital infrastructure that serves our country is literally under attack.”
So I take this issue very seriously and have had for many years, that is, making sure, as the Mueller--Special Counsel Mueller indicated, 12 Russian intelligence officers hacked the DNC, and various information detailing phishing attacks into our state election boards, online personas, and stealing documents. So, when we had a subcommittee hearing and former Bush Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff testified, I asked him point blank, because there were some of our colleagues who were saying, “you know what? Everybody does election interference.” So I asked him if election interference was something that we did, or should be encouraging? He responded that he agreed: “Interfering with infrastructure or elections is completely off limits and unacceptable.”
That is why I believe that we should be working aggressively internationally to sanction anybody that interferes in our elections. So I hope today that we will get a report from the witnesses on exactly what they have been doing to clamp down on election interference. I hope that they will tell us what kind of hate speech and misinformation that they have taken off the books. It is no secret that there are various state actors who are doing all they can to take a whack at democracy, to try to say that our way of government, that our way of life, that our way of freedom of speech and information, is somehow not as good as we have made it, being the beacon of democracy around the globe.
I am not going to let or tolerate people to continue to whack at our election process, our vote by mail system, or the ability of tech platforms, security companies, our law enforcement entities, and the collective community to speak against misinformation and hate speech. We have to show that the United States of America stands behind our principles and that our principles do also transfer to the responsibility of communication online. As my colleagues will note, we've all been through this in the past. That is why you, Mr. Chairman, and I, and Senators Rosen and Thune, sponsored the Hack Act that is to help increase the security and cyber security of our nation and create a workforce that can fight against that. That is why I joined with Van Hollen and Rubio on the Deter Act, especially in establishing sanctions against Russian election interference, and to continue to make sure that we build the infrastructure of tomorrow.
So I know that some people think that these issues are out of sight and out of mind. I guarantee you, they're not. There are actors who have been at this for a long time. They wanted to destabilize Eastern Europe, and we became the second act when they tried to destabilize our democracy here by sewing disinformation. I want to show them that we in the United States do have fair elections. We do have a fair process. We are going to be that beacon of democracy. 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. That is to say, as some of those who are testifying today, what can we do on transparency, on reporting, on analysis, and yes, I think you're going to hear a lot about algorithms today, and the kinds of oversight that we all want to make sure that we can continue to have the diversity of voices in the United States of America, both online and offline.
I do want to say though, Mr. Chairman, I am concerned about the vertical nature of news and information. Today I expect to ask the witnesses about the fact that I believe they create a choke point for local news. The local news media have lost 70% of their revenue over the last decade, and we have lost thousands, thousands of journalistic jobs that are important. It was even amazing to me that the sequence of events yesterday had me being interviewed by someone at a newspaper who was funded by a joint group of the Knight Foundation, and probably Facebook funds, to interview me about the fact that the news media and broadcast has fallen on such a decline because of loss of revenue as they've made the transition to the digital age.
Somehow, somehow, we have to come together to show that the diversity of voices that local news represent need to be dealt with fairly when it comes to the advertising market. And that too much control in the advertising market puts a foot on their ability to continue to move forward and grow in the digital age. Just as other forms of media have made the transition, and yes still making the transition, we want to have a very healthy and dynamic news media across the United States of America. So I plan to ask the witnesses today about that.
I wish we had time to go into depth on privacy and privacy issues but Mr. Chairman, you know, and so does Senator Thune and other colleagues of the Committee on my side, how important it is that we protect American consumers on privacy issues. That we're not done with this work, that there is much to do to bring consensus in the United States on this important issue. And I hope that as we do have time or in the follow up to these questions, that we can ask the witnesses about that today.
But make no mistake, gentlemen, thank you for joining us, but this is probably one of many, many, many conversations that we will have about all of these issues. But again, let's harness the information age, as you are doing, but let's also make sure that consumers are fairly treated and that we are making it work for all of us to guarantee our privacy, our diversity of voices, and upholding our democratic principles and the fact that we, the United States of America, stand for freedom of information and freedom of the press. Thank you.
Witness Panel 1
Mr. Jack DorseyChief Executive Officer
Mr. Sundar PichaiChief Executive OfficerAlphabet Inc., Google
Mr. Mark ZuckerbergChief Executive Officer