Senate committee votes to subpoena CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter to testify

From left, Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., conduct a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee markup in Hart Building on July 31, 2019.

Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

The Senate Commerce Committee voted on a unanimous, bipartisan basis Thursday to subpoena the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter to testify before the panel about concerns over the tech industry’s key legal shield, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the committee, initially opposed the subpoena introduced by Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss. But on Thursday, Cantwell said she supported the move after Republicans included language in the subpoena about privacy and “media domination.”

Cantwell stressed, however, “what I don’t want to see is a chilling effect on individuals who are in a process of trying to crack down on hate speech or misinformation about Covid during a pandemic.”

“I welcome the debate about [Section] 230,” Cantwell said in her opening remarks. “I think it should be a long and thoughtful process. Not sure a long and thoughtful process will happen before the election, but I understand my colleagues’ desires here today.” 

Republicans have repeatedly turned to Section 230 as a key area for reform in response to their concerns that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube censor conservative voices. The platforms have repeatedly denied that they suppress conservative users, many of whom thrive in sharing their messages on those services. Still, several instances in which the platforms have made mistakes or reversed course on take-down decisions have fueled those criticisms from the right.

Section 230 allows online platforms to be protected from liability for their users’ posts and their moderation practices if taken in good faith. While the bill was introduced in the 1990s to allow nascent tech companies to grow, many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have recently questioned its current language, which now serves to insulate some of the world’s most valuable companies from legal challenges.

Wicker, in his opening statement, said both presidential candidates support reform to Section 230. President Donald Trump has issued an executive order targeting changes to the law’s enforcement and Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden told The New York Times editorial board during the primary race that Section 230 “should be revoked.”

“Even if you happen to agree with them on a particular issue right now, ceding the power to the star chamber of Silicon Valley is profoundly dangerous,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said following the committee’s vote, referring to the tech companies.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, discussed the importance of “an even playing field” for small companies to be able to compete, but said she doesn’t “really see it,” when talking about the alleged suppression of conservative voices on social media.

“We are joining you with this subpoena but you need to join us when it comes to taking on this major, major issue that Sen. Cruz has identified when it comes to monopolies,” Klobuchar appealed to her Republican colleagues.

A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment. Representatives for Google and Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The CEOs — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai — have all testified before Congress in the past. Zuckerberg and Pichai most recently testified in July before the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, which is conducting a probe of their businesses as part of a review of antitrust laws for digital markets.

Other executives from all three companies have testified multiple times before Congress on issues ranging from privacy to alleged bias to disinformation. 

Zuckerberg’s last appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee was during his grilling following revelations about how political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to access information about voters and target them ahead of the 2016 presidential election .

Cantwell referenced the appearance in her introductory remarks, saying she “can’t wait to ask Mr. Zuckerberg further questions.”

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