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Big Tech CEO Senate hearing ends with little discussion on how to fix companies' liability shield

The CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter return (virtually) to Congress today to defend their legal liability shield to lawmakers keen to weaken it.

The hearing began at 10 a.m. ET and ended shortly before 2 p.m. ET.

The CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday to defend their legal liability shield.

Bipartisan members of the committee are eager to reform Section 230, which protects tech platforms from liability from their users' posts and also allows them to moderate and remove posts they find objectionable. The shield has come under attack from Republicans who accuse platforms of using it to shield them from claims of bias and Democrats who accuse them of failing to effectively remove harmful content.

You can watch the full hearing below:

Hearing ends with little discussion of how to move forward on legislation

Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) attends the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing 'Does Section 230's Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?', on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, October 28, 2020.
Michael Reynolds | Pool | Reuters

After nearly four hours, the hearing wrapped up with little discussion of how to move forward on legislation to reform Section 230 or enact a national digital privacy law.

Republicans focused their comments on allegations that the Facebook, Google and Twitter censor conservatives on their platforms by creating and applying policies in a biased way. All three CEOs denied that they engage in censorship.

Democrats, meanwhile, directed much of their attention toward Republicans, who they criticized for holding the hearing less than a week before Election Day. Several Democrats accused their GOP colleagues of doing the president's bidding by holding the hearing.

Still, they acknowledged shared concerns about how Section 230 protects large tech platforms from being held liable for their users' posts. But their talking points shared little in common with those from Republicans.

Democrats emphasized the need for more content moderation — particularly around election and public health misinformation — rather than less.

Privacy and tech's impact on local journalism were barely mentioned during the lengthy hearing, even though the topics were added to appease Democrats and get them on board with authorizing subpoenas. The CEOs ended up agreeing to testify after the committee had unanimously voted in favor of authorization.

Ultimately, the political gridlock mostly benefits the tech companies for now by maintaining the status quo on Section 230. But even they have asked Congress for new laws to give them a clearer roadmap, particularly when it comes to privacy. —Lauren Feiner

Senators repeatedly mispronounce Google CEO’s name

CEO of Google and Alphabet Sundar Pichai appears on a monitor as he testifies remotely during the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing 'Does Section 230's Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior', on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, October 28, 2020.
Michael Reynolds | Pool | Reuters

Senators repeatedly mispronounced Alphabet and Google's CEO Sundar Pichai's name throughout the hearing.

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee and Senate Chairman Roger Wicker were among those who repeatedly mispronounced Pichai's name. Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Maria Cantwell briefly mispronounced Pichai's name, but later pronounced it correctly.

Pichai's name is pronounced "Pi-chai" but senators often left out the "h" in his name, pronouncing it as "Pick-eye." Others pronounced it "Pee-Chai." --Jennifer Elias

Lawmakers' asks of tech CEOs on content moderation are at odds

Republicans and Democrats on the committee continued to ask the tech CEOs to take very different approaches to moderating posts on their platforms.

GOP senators such as Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, criticized the companies for reducing distribution or removing posts by conservatives, including the president. They claimed Democrats have not been "censored" to the same degree. The CEOs denied that their moderation policies constitute censorship and largely defended their policies.

Democrats, on the other hand, have asked the CEOs to moderate and remove harmful content even more than they already do.

"The issue is not that the companies before us today are taking too many posts down," Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said. "The issue is that they are leaving too many dangerous posts up."

"I believe the tech companies called here today need to take more action, not less," echoed Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc. — Lauren Feiner

Democrats slam GOP for holding hearing less than a week before the election

Democrats throughout the hearing slammed Republicans for holding the hearing less than a week before the 2020 general election.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, declined to ask questions of the three CEOs, calling the hearing "nonsense" and a "scar" on the Senate.

"What we are seeing today is an attempt to bully the CEOs of private companies into carrying out a hit job on a presidential candidate by making sure that they push out foreign and domestic misinformation meant to influence the election," Schatz said, asking the CEOs to "stand up" to those efforts.

Ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said that "this hearing didn't need to take place at this moment." She said she agreed with many statements in the hearing so far but that it would be better served it if were to happen in January, rather than right before the election. She denounced misleading claims about mail-in voting and affirmed that the method is safe and legitimate. — Lauren Feiner

Cruz presses Dorsey on Twitter's handling of New York Post article

VIDEO7:3007:30
Ted Cruz grills Jack Dorsey on limiting the New York Post's Twitter account

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pressed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on the platform's handling of the unverified New York Post article, repeatedly raising his voice and interrupting Dorsey's responses.

The article contained information supposedly taken from a hard drive belonging to former Vice President Joe Biden's son, seemingly without his knowledge.

Twitter initially blocked users from posting the article or sending it in direct messages because the company said it violated its hacked materials policy. The article contained images of material supposedly taken from the hard drive, which Twitter believed fell under that policy, meant to prevent hacked material from spreading on its platform. Twitter later allowed the link to be posted.

"Our team made a fast decision," Dorsey said. "The enforcement action, however, of blocking URLs both in tweets and in DMs, in direct messages, we believe was incorrect."

Cruz repeatedly asked about why the New York Post has continued to be locked out of its account even though the policy against posting the link has changed. Dorsey explained that since their tweet with the link violated the original policy, the Post could regain control of its account if it deleted the tweet. It would then be able to simply repost the same tweet, since it no longer violates its policies. — Lauren Feiner

Dorsey says Twitter doesn't have the ability to influence elections

CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey gives his opening statement remotely during the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing 'Does Section 230's Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior', on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, October 28, 2020.
Greg Nash | Pool | Reuters

Twitter does not have the ability to influence elections, CEO Jack Dorsey testified.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pressed Dorsey on his responses, which he called "absurd on their face."

"We are one part of a spectrum of communication channels that people have," Dorsey said.

"So you're testifying to this committee right now that Twitter when it silences people, when it censors people, when it blocks political speech, that has no impact on elections?" Cruz said.

"People have choice of other communication channels," Dorsey said.

"Not if they don't hear information," Cruz responded. "If you don't think you have the power to influence elections, why do you block anything?"

"We have policies that are focused on making sure that more voices on the platform are possible," Dorsey said. "We see a lot of abuse and harassment that ends up silencing people and having them leave the platform." — Lauren Feiner

Democrat says hearing is an attempt to 'intimidate' platforms for removing disinformation

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announces a bipartisan agreement on Turkey sanctions during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 17, 2019.
Erin Scott | Reuters

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., accused Republicans of hosting Wednesday's hearing to "intimidate" the tech platforms for rightfully removing disinformation.

He pressed the CEOs on whether they have a plan to deal with uncertainty about the election outcome. The three CEOs said they all have plans to deal with such a scenario. — Lauren Feiner

GOP senator asks for a list of articles suppressed by tech platforms

Senator John Thune, R- South Dakota
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., asked Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter's Jack Dorsey to commit to sharing a list of articles suppressed by their platforms over the past five years. He also asked them to include an explanation of why each article's distribution was dampened.

Zuckerberg said he would discuss it with his staff but that much of that information would already be available since Facebook partners with fact-checkers to review articles circulated on their platform.

Dorsey said he would "absolutely be open" to the idea. He said he would go "a step further" and provide more transparency around Twitter's moderation processes. — Lauren Feiner

Twitter CEO explains why it hasn't taken down Holocaust denial

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey explained why the company has not taken down Holocaust denial from Iran's leader.

Dorsey said the company only maintains policies against misleading information for manipulated media, public health and civic engagement. While he agreed that it would be wrong and misinformation to say the Holocaust did not happen, he said Twitter does not have a policy against that specific type of misinformation.

"It's misleading information, but we don't have a policy against that type of misleading information," Dorsey said. He added that such messages could violate other types of policies, such as those against inciting violence.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said he does not understand why Twitter has labeled President Donald Trump's tweets for misleading information but not taken action on other tweets. — Lauren Feiner

CEOs warn lawmakers about potential negative impacts of weakening Section 230

VIDEO3:0603:06
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in opening testimony to Congress: Removing Section 230 will remove speech from the internet

In their written testimonies, the CEOs warn of the potential negative impacts of repealing key portions of Section 230.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey wrote that it would impose the greatest harm on small businesses that can't keep up with legal fees.

Google's Sundar Pichai wrote that the statute has been "foundational to US leadership in the tech sector." — Lauren Feiner

VIDEO5:1405:14
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Congress: Section 230 helped create the internet as we know it

Lawmakers share concerns over Section 230 and digital privacy

The executives face lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee. Members unanimously supported the hearing after its scope was expanded to include discussions of digital privacy and tech's impact on local media. Republicans and Democrats on the committee remain divided over how to tackle these issues, but their shared concern leaves an open path for reform to come down the road.

"There is more common ground than people realize," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told CNBC Tuesday of Republicans' and Democrats' approach to reforming the legal shield known as Section 230. He said there could be more "opportunity for bipartisan consensus" after the election.

Section 230 protects tech platforms from liability for their users' posts but also allows them to moderate content they consider "objectionable." Republicans have complained that the legal shield allows tech companies to get away with removing messages they disagree with, particularly those from conservatives. Tech companies have repeatedly denied claims that their moderation practices are based in biased policies or algorithms.

Democrats, on the other hand, fear that tech platforms have not done enough to police their platforms and that Section 230 allows them to get away with not taking appropriate action. Blumenthal said he's particularly concerned about disinformation on the platforms that could discourage potential voters from turning out or mislead voters about the election outcome.

Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., opened the hearing by discussing the historical importance of Section 230 in allowing for America's Big Tech companies to grow. But, he said, the now-large companies have the ability to "stifle" messages and "the time has come for that free pass to end."

"There is strong bipartisan support for reviewing Section 230," Wicker said. "In fact both presidential candidates, [Donald] Trump and Biden, have proposed repealing Section 230 in its entirety — a position I have not yet embraced."

Ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., focused her opening remarks on concerns about disinformation on the tech platforms. She said she doesn't want the hearing to result in a "chilling effect" on cracking down on hate speech and that she wants to get a report on how the platforms are tackling election interference.

The hearing will also be a chance to see where lawmakers stand on a national privacy law, which similarly has widespread support but has been held up by disagreements over two details about how it should be enforced.

Democrats have advocated for a bill that would allow states to add extra protections for their constituents and give consumers the right to sue companies they believe violate their digital privacy rights.

Republicans want a uniform national privacy law that will preempt state laws and are opposed to so-called private rights of action. They fear a patchwork of state laws and petty lawsuits that bog down smaller companies.

Blumenthal said he thinks it could be possible to "modify" those details to reach a middle ground if a national law provides strong protections for consumers. — Lauren Feiner