Free speech vs. censorship: Silicon Valley tech giants questioned by Senate
Lawmakers accused Facebook of promoting divisiveness. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senate Republicans accused Silicon Valley tech giants of censorship during a hearing this week intended to examine whether a provision in the Communications Decency Act gives internet companies too much protection.

Section 230 has become controversial in recent years because it provides tech companies with broad legal immunity for what its users post online. The hearing, however, sometimes strayed off topic while senators grilled CEOs Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Sundar Pichai of Google.

“The three witnesses we have before this committee today collectively pose, I believe, the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Cruz primarily took aim at Dorsey. He said Twitter acted as a “Democratic super PAC” and slammed the company’s decision to lock the New York Post’s account following an article containing allegations against Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden.

The New York Post isn’t just a random person tweeting, Cruz added, it’s an almost 200-year-old newspaper with the fourth highest circulation in the United States.

“Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media is allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear?” Cruz asked.

Dorsey explained every person or organization that signs up on Twitter must agree to a terms-of-service. The company has a policy to limit the spread of hacked materials, he said, and the New York Post’s article contained information from unverified sources.

But the Twitter executive acknowledged the company needs to work on its transparency.

“We realize we need to earn trust more. We realize that more accountability is needed to show our intentions,” he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who questioned Zuckerberg, said she was concerned Facebook promoted divisiveness. The Minnesota Democrat explained recent studies indicate the company’s algorithms push users to polarizing content.

Zuckerberg said the system wasn’t designed to be divisive. The system only directs users to the content most likely to be of interest to them, he said, such as when their cousin had a baby.

“I’m telling you right now that’s not what I’m talking about, the cousins and the babies, I’m talking about conspiracy theories,” Klobuchar said. “…I think its been corrosive.”

In his opening remarks, Zuckerberg touched on the current challenges facing tech companies. He explained both political parties are pushing tech companies to make changes — but in opposite directions.

Democrats often say Facebook does not remove enough content, he said, while Republicans say the company removes too much.

“There are real disagreements about where the limits of online speech should be,” he said.

Zuckerberg further stated he believed Congress had a role to play when it came to setting the rules for online discourse.

“How do we balance free expression and safety? How do we define what is dangerous? Who should decide?” he asked. “I don’t believe that private companies should be making so many decisions about these issues by themselves.”

Representatives in Silicon Valley have recently weighed in on the issue of Section 230.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) took to Twitter during the hearing and acknowledged Congress had failed to curb the spread of hate speech online, or to enact meaningful privacy regulations. But he said gutting Section 230 wasn’t the answer.

“Without Section 230, social media platforms wouldn’t be protected from civil legal action for words shared on their sites,” he wrote. “They’d err on the side of removing content to the extreme. That won’t save us. It will silence us.”

Last week, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) introduced the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act. The bill would narrowly amend Section 230 in order to hold large social media platforms accountable for the algorithmic amplification of radicalizing content that leads to violence.

“I was a conferee for the legislation that codified Section 230 into federal law in 1996, and I remain a steadfast supporter of the underlying principle of promoting speech online,” she said. “However, algorithmic promotion of content that radicalizes individuals is a new problem that necessitates Congress to update the law.”

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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