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"Who the hell elected you?" Big Tech defends itself against charges of political bias

Tech CEOs clash with senators at hearing
Tech CEOs from Google, Twitter and Facebook testify at Senate hearing 08:20

The CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter faced another grilling from politicians on Wednesday, as Republican senators made the case for stripping long-standing legal protections for internet companies.

The Senate Commerce Committee summoned Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai to testify for a hearing Wednesday. The executives agreed to appear remotely after being threatened with subpoenas.

Republicans and President Donald Trump have attacked social media platforms, which they accuse — without evidence — of deliberately suppressing conservative, religious and anti-abortion views.

"Who the hell elected you?"

Texas Senator Ted Cruz echoed many of his Republican colleagues when he tore into Dorsey over the platform's recent suppression of an unverified story from the conservative-leaning New York Post.

"Mr. Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear? And why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic super PAC, silencing views contrary to your political beliefs?" Cruz said.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies before Senate Commerce Committee hearing in Washington
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies remotely from his home during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing to discuss "reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act," which protects internet companies, on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 28, 2020.  HANDOUT / REUTERS

"I hear the concerns and acknowledge them," Dorsey replied, before calling for more transparency into Twitter's content moderation efforts. Twitter, along with Facebook, had quickly moved to block the story

In Twitter's case, the story — which contained screenshots of unverified emails from Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden — violated the platform's policies on hacked materials. Twitter soon changed its policies, although the New York Post remained locked out of its Twitter account for another two weeks.

However, while both Facebook and Twitter actively curtail fringe views, there is little evidence that right-wing views are harmed disproportionately. Independent research has shown that much of the top-performing content on Facebook is conservative, and that YouTube limits the speech of conservative as well as progressive commentators alike. 

When Facebook announced it was removing pages of "organizations tied to violence," it removed pages tied to armed militias but also those of nonviolent anarchist and antifascist groups, as the Intercept has reported.

Democrats on Wednesday decried tech platforms for fostering the spread of militant hate groups. Michigan's Gary Peters and Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar, both Democrats, hammered Facebook about its role in radicalizing people, including 13 who were allegedly plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

"Recent studies have shown that part of your algorithms push people toward more divisive content," Klobuchar said. "Does that bother you?"

The internet as we know it

The debate centers on a two-decade-old law known as Section 230. The law makes it possible for internet companies to set rules for speech on their platforms, but avoid being held liable for everything that is said within their confines. Section 230 is largely responsible for the shape of the internet as it exists today, but critics on all sides of the political spectrum have said the law allows tech giants to abdicate their responsibility to impartially moderate content.

The Justice Department has asked Congress to strip some of tech's legal protections. Earlier this year, Mr. Trump signed an executive order challenging the protections from lawsuits under the 1996 telecommunications law.

In their opening statements prepared for the hearing, Dorsey, Zuckerberg and Pichai addressed the proposals for changes to the law.

Zuckerberg said Congress "should update the law to make sure it's working as intended," adding, "We don't think tech companies should be making so many decisions about these important issues alone."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Senate Commerce Committee hearing in Washington
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is seen as he testifies remotely on October 28, 2020.  HANDOUT / REUTERS

Dorsey and Pichai, however, urged caution in making any changes. "Undermining Section 230 will result in far more removal of online speech and impose severe limitations on our collective ability to address harmful content and protect people online," Dorsey said.

Pichai urged lawmakers "to be very thoughtful about any changes to Section 230 and to be very aware of the consequences those changes might have on businesses and consumers." 

Last week, the Justice Department sued Google, accusing it of abusing its dominance in online search and advertising. It's the government's most significant antitrust lawsuit since its groundbreaking case against Microsoft more than 20 years ago. Facebook, Apple and Amazon also are under investigation at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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