Senators Challenge Zuckerberg, Dorsey Over Speech Rules

Top U.S. senators challenged the chief executive officers ofFacebook Inc. andTwitter Inc., renewing their accusations that the companies are failing in their roles as moderators of online speech, and called for changes to legal protections for users’ posts.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to answer questions about online 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 President Donald Trump since election day that falsely claim 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 election misinformation. Twitter has 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 his election loss. Democrats, meanwhile, don’t believe the companies do enough to combat hate speech, election misinformation and other problematic content online.

Tuesday’s hearing is the second in the past month 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.

In their prepared remarks, both CEOs opened the door to possible changes to Section 230. Yet both also warned that any changes would need to be carefully thought out, as any restructuring of the law could carry dramatic consequences.

“Knowing that overly burdensome government regulatory schemes are not always nimble nor quick and can have unintended consequences, I encourage Congress to work with industry and civil society to build upon Section 230’s foundation,” Dorsey wrote in prepared testimony for the hearing.

Zuckerberg said that he supports the government making more of the content decisions that are now being handled by companies, but said he wants Facebook to influence the process. “We stand ready to work with Congress on what regulation could look like,” he said in prepared remarks.

While the law is the target of criticism from both parties, some Republicans want to change it to force companies to keep up more conservative content.

— With assistance by Sarah Frier

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