Big Tech CEOs Defend Section 230 Online Protection Law

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Alphabet/Google CEO Sundar Pichai have appeared virtually before a Senate panel on Wednesday.

The US Senate Commerce Committee earlier this month had voted to subpoena chief executives of Twitter, Alphabet’s Google and Facebook for the hearing, after the tech CEOs had refused to appear on a voluntary basis.

While Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai appeared virtually before the panel, the committee was unable to establish contact with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and declared a short recess.

Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey

Section 230 defence

The US Senate Commerce Committee chaired by Republican Senator Roger Wicker, subpoenaed tech CEOs about reforms of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which offers tech companies protection from liability over content posted by users.

Essentially it stops tech firms from being liable for the content and opinions expressed online by its users.

Both Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai were asked about how they monitor and moderate political content online.

They told the committee that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is crucial to free expression on the internet, Reuters reported.

Twitter’s Dorsey reportedly warned the committee that eroding the foundation of Section 230 could significantly hurt how people communicate online.

Pichai meanwhile reportedly said the company operates without political bias and that doing otherwise would be against its business interests.

Mark Zuckerberg was expected to say that he supports changing the law but would warn that tech platforms are likely to censor more to avoid legal risks if Section 230 is repealed.

Law change

But it is clear that there is strong political support for removing Section 230 protections.

In his opening remarks, committee chairman Wicker reportedly said that the liability shield has protected companies from “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,” he is reported as saying.

Wicker also criticised the companies’ decision to block stories from the New York Post that made claims about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son.

“It’s 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,” Wicker reportedly said.

Joe Biden has also expressed support for revoking the Section 230 law.

Trump pressure

The US action on Section 230 comes after US President Donald Trump earlier this year clashed publicly with Twitter, after it began applying a fact-checking warning to the President’s tweets for the first time, as part of its new policy on misleading information.

When Twitter refused to back down, President Trump signed an executive order against social networking firms.

Trump wants to “remove or change” section 230 that shields social media companies from liability for content posted by their users.

Section 230 protections have been criticised in the past by other lawmakers on both sides of the pond, who feel that it gives social networking firms a free pass on things like hate speech and content that supports terrorism.

It should be noted that there is little chance this reform will be approval by Congress this year, with the Justice Department still formulating proposed changes.

And it is not just the US that is threatening action against tech firms.

The European Commission is drafting a new Digital Services Act that, in addition to confronting market abuses by dominant platforms, would also address liability for harmful or illegal content.

Its proposals are due to unveiled on 2 December.

UPDATE: After the short recess, the panel were able to connect virtually with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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