Facebook, Twitter, Google CEOs to defend key law before U.S. Senate panel

Facebook, Google and Twitter logos are seen in this combination photo from Reuters files. REUTERS/File Photos/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The chief executives of Facebook, Twitter and Google will defend a law protecting internet companies before a Senate panel on Wednesday, a topic that has split U.S. lawmakers on ways to hold Big Tech accountable for how they moderate content on their platforms.

Facebook Inc’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter Inc’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai will be asked about how they monitor and moderate political content online.

Sundar Pichai MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Simon Dawson

They are expected to tell the committee chaired by Republican Senator Roger Wicker that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – which protects companies from liability over content posted by users – is crucial to free expression on the internet, according to their testimonies seen by Reuters.

Twitter’s Dorsey will warn the committee that eroding the foundation of Section 230 could significantly hurt how people communicate online. Zuckerberg, who is likely to say he supports changing the law, will also warn that tech platforms are likely to censor more to avoid legal risks if Section 230 is repealed.

In his opening remarks, a text copy of which was seen by Reuters, Senator Wicker is expected to say 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 expected to say.

The hearing comes after Republican President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for tech companies to be held accountable for allegedly stifling conservative voices. As a result, calls for reforming Section 230 intensified from Republican lawmakers ahead of the Nov. 3 elections, even when there is little chance of approval by Congress this year.

Senator Ted Cruz on Tuesday released a picture on Twitter titled ‘Free Speech showdown Cruz vs Dorsey’ that showed him and Twitter’s Dorsey pitted against each other in a UFC style fight. “I have long said that Big Tech poses the single greatest threat to our First Amendment rights and the future of democracy,” Cruz said in a statement ahead of the hearing.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has also expressed support for revoking the law.

Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate commerce panel, initially rejected a request by Republicans to subpoena the three CEOs to appear at the hearing, but later changed her mind and said she welcomed a “debate about 230”.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of politics being that it’s a week before the election and that’s unfortunate,” Cantwell told Reuters, adding that there is a need for substantive engagement on the issue.

Democrats are likely to ask about other topics, such as the spread of false information on social media and platforms’ efforts to contain it.

U.S. lawmakers are not the only ones pushing for reform. The European Union’s executive Commission is drafting a new Digital Services Act that, in addition to tackling market abuses by dominant platforms, would also address liability for harmful or illegal content. Competition Commissioner Margrete Vestager is due to unveil her proposals on Dec. 2.

The EU already has a code of conduct to deal with hate speech on social media while Germany has passed legislation compelling platforms to remove illegal or offensive content promptly or face steep fines.

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