For more than two decades, internet companies have been shielded from liability for much of what their users post by a once-obscure rule called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Now that shield — and how internet companies moderate content on their sites — is being questioned by lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle.
On Wednesday, the chief executives of Google, Facebook and Twitter will testify before a Senate committee about their moderation practices.
The hearing, held by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, will be a repeat performance before Congress for Sundar Pichai of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter. But with the Nov. 3 election less than a week away, the executives face additional pressure to manage misinformation without exerting unfair influence on the voting process.
Although the companies are responsible for protecting intellectual property and rooting out violations of federal criminal law, Section 230 shields them from defamation lawsuits and other legal claims that could be costly to fight.
The law, considered one of the bedrock regulations that allowed the commercial internet to flourish, was intended to give tech companies broad discretion over moderation, allowing them to set rules for what users could and could not post on their sites. It was meant as a practical solution that would allow people to express themselves freely online, while keeping companies off the hook for every comment their users made.
Republicans argue the companies — Twitter, in particular — are being heavy-handed in their content moderation and are unfairly silencing conservative voices. Democrats, however, argue the companies aren’t doing enough to keep misinformation and outright lies off their platforms.
In May, President Trump also issued an executive order intended to strip the companies of the legal safe harbor provided by Section 230, though it was not clear what authority the administration would have to make that change.
The hearing begins at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, and the chief executives are expected to take questions remotely from 26 senators. The hearing is expected to last several hours.
Mr. Dorsey is likely to face the toughest questioning because Twitter has been particularly aggressive in its efforts to fact-check and take down posts that misinform users about the pandemic and the presidential election.
Last week, Twitter blocked a link to a New York Post article about Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son, Hunter Biden, saying that it violated company policies against sharing personal information and content stolen by hackers. After an outcry from conservative leaders, Twitter walked back the decision and allowed the link to be shared.
Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Zuckerberg are scheduled to testify again on Nov. 17 in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that will focus on Twitter and Facebook’s decisions to limit the spread of the New York Post article. Facebook took steps to reduce the spread of the story and said it was eligible for fact-checking, but was not as aggressive as Twitter.
If there is one thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on, it’s that the internet giants have become too powerful and need to be restrained. Many lawmakers also agree that the companies should be stripped of a law that shields websites from liability for content created by their users.
But members of the Senate commerce committee will almost certainly make wildly different arguments to drive home their points on Wednesday.
Republicans regularly accuse Facebook, Google and Twitter of censoring conservative viewpoints by labeling, taking down and minimizing the reach of posts by Republican politicians and right-leaning media personalities. They have the support of President Trump, who issued an executive order this summer aimed at stripping the technology companies of their safe harbor under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Three Republican senators — Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee — will almost certainly accuse the Silicon Valley giants of censorship. The senators have been among the most vocal about a perceived liberal bias inside the tech companies. Some of the hardest questions and finger pointing could be directed at Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter, for recent decisions to take down and label posts from Mr. Trump.
Don’t expect Democrats to touch the subject of censorship. They will instead focus on a range of issues that point to the problem of power held by the internet giants. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the commerce committee, will call for the companies to help local news outlets, whose business models have been hollowed out by the rise of the internet. Expect Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut to accuse Google and Facebook of monopolistic behavior and to argue for the need for stronger antitrust enforcement. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Mr. Blumenthal will probably harp on privacy practices.
Another thing to watch for from the Democrats: possible signals of what the party will push forward if Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the presidential election and the Senate flips to Democratic control.