The chief executives of Twitter and Google defended a law protecting internet companies before a Senate panel on Wednesday, a topic that has split US lawmakers on ways to hold Big Tech accountable for how they moderate content on their platforms.
Twitter Inc's Jack Dorsey and Google's Sundar Pichai were probed about how they monitor and moderate political content online.
They told 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.
Twitter's Dorsey warned the committee that eroding the foundation of Section 230 could significantly hurt how people communicate online.
Pichai said the company operates without political bias and that doing otherwise would be against its business interests.
The committee was unable to establish contact with Facebook Inc's Mark Zuckerberg and declared a short recess. He is expected to say he supports changing the law but also warned that tech platforms are likely to censor more to avoid legal risks if Section 230 is repealed.
Facebook was not immediately available for comment.
In his opening remarks, Wicker 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 said.
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," he said.
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 November 3 elections, even when there is little chance of approval by Congress this year.
The Justice Department urged congressional leaders in a letter Tuesday to move quickly to reform the law and cited the decision of Twitter to initially bar distribution of the New York Post story on Biden's son.? 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.
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.
US 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 Margrethe Vestager is due to unveil her proposals on December 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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