(Bloomberg) — Top U.S. senators challenged the chief executive officers of Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc., renewing accusations that the companies are failing to moderate online speech, and called for changes to legal protections that benefit the industry.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to answer questions about content moderation and their role in political discourse. Conservatives have criticized both companies for what they say is unfair policing of right-wing content, including posts by U.S. President Donald Trump since election day that falsely claimed victory.
South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, the committee chairman, questioned the companies’ decisions to limit the spread of a recent New York Post article that could have been politically damaging to Democrat Joe Biden. “That to me seems like you’re the ultimate editor,” he said. “If that’s not making an editorial decision I don’t know what would be.”
These types of decisions, Graham added, mean that the government needs to revisit the legal shield these platforms receive under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects their treatment of user content. “Section 230 has to be changed, because we can’t get here without change,” he said.
Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, also called for Section 230 reform and criticized the companies for not doing enough to police their services. “You have built terrifying tools of persuasion and manipulation with power far exceeding the robber barons of the last Gilded Age,” he said. “You have failed your responsibility.”
The hearing comes in the wake of a contentious election, in which both companies enforced rules around misinformation. Twitter flagged Trump’s posts dozens of times in recent days for breaking rules around misinformation and undermining election results, and in some cases the company has hidden his tweets behind warning screens.
Facebook and Twitter are often criticized for their respective rules around user speech. Republicans say those rules are too stringent, and infringe on users’ expectations of open debate. Many conservative lawmakers have also backed Trump’s false claims about the election result. Democrats, meanwhile, don’t believe the companies do enough to combat hate speech, election misinformation and other problematic content online.
Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas proposed that “the cure for bad speech is not censorship but it’s more speech” — a philosophy that Zuckerberg has also shared in recent months. Cornyn asked Dorsey why that approach doesn’t apply to Twitter. Dorsey said he made a “business decision” in creating Twitter’s rules, adding that building an environment where people feel comfortable on the site was part of ensuring debate.
“What the market told us was that people would not put up with abuse, harassment and misleading information that would cause offline harm and they would leave our service because of it,” he said. “Our intention is to create clear policy, clear enforcement, that enables people to feel that they can express themselves on our service and ultimately trust it.”
Both CEOs were challenged over specific policing decisions. Dorsey was questioned about Twitter’s decision to block links to the New York Post story — a move the company ultimately reversed. Dorsey said Twitter made a “mistake,” and the company’s policies around hacked materials have been changed.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the committee, asked the Twitter chief why the company was merely labeling false statements by Trump about the election, rather than removing them entirely, particularly over the risk that they might be “stirring people up to unacceptable levels.”
Dorsey said he agreed “in spirit,” but added that Twitter’s “policy is focused on misleading information around the election and the civic process to provide greater context, to provide added information so people can make decisions around what’s happening.”
Feinstein also asked Zuckerberg if he thought Facebook did enough to combat Trump’s claims that the voting results were fraudulent and wrong. Zuckerberg said Facebook took “very significant” steps to alert people of the election outcome, including putting a link to its election information center at the top of every U.S. user’s feed. “We really went quite far in terms of helping to distribute reliable and accurate information about what was going on during this election,” he replied.
Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said “there’s not a person on this committee who doesn’t know who the next president of the United States will be,” but said what’s going on right now is “dangerous.” Trump is trying to “thwart our democracy” and one of his weapons of choice is social media. “You have the tools to prevent him from weaponizing these platforms,” Booker said.
During one of the early exchanges, Zuckerberg said companies need to be more transparent about what kinds of posts they remove. He suggested that tech companies should have to meet certain standards for removing violating content as part of any changes to regulation. Facebook already shares quarterly reports detailing what types of posts it removes, and how many of them were detected using automated software instead of user reports.
Tuesday’s hearing is the second recently for Dorsey and Zuckerberg, who also appeared alongside Google CEO Sundar Pichai before a separate Senate committee in October to discuss similar topics. Pichai escaped the latest hearing, although the biggest tech CEOs have nonetheless become bipartisan targets in Washington.
Senator Josh Hawley, a leading Republican critic of big tech who compared the companies to 19th century industrialists who coordinated their business practices to drive up profits, raised the issue of alleged coordinated censorship between tech companies. He threatened to subpoena information from an internal Facebook communication system that he claims employees use to coordinate with Twitter and Google.
“It is time we took action against these modern day robber barons,” Hawley said.
Zuckerberg said that Facebook teams coordinate with others in the industry on security, but disputed Hawley’s claim that this coordination amounts to “censorship.” The CEO also said he wasn’t aware of whether employees were speaking with peers at competitors about content moderation. The companies have eagerly touted their coordination on issues such as election integrity and terrorism, though they haven’t necessarily showed off joint work on how to handle particular pieces of content or accounts and their approaches often diverge.
Zuckerberg declined to promise he would search Facebook’s internal communications system for mentions of the other companies, citing security concerns. He later called the system “basically just a companywide to-do list.”
(Updates with Booker and Hawley comments from 14th paragraph.)
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