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Tech CEOs grilled again in "sham" hearing

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 29 October 2020, 10:14 am

It was supposed to be a chance for some of the most powerful tech leaders in the US to explain their approach to Section 230, a crucial law that allows them to moderate content on their platforms as they see fit.

Instead, less than a week out from the US election, it devolved into a shouty mess dominated by Republican politicians blatantly pushing their own interests. An outburst from Ted Cruz, a one-time presidential candidate himself, summed up the tone of the hearing: 

"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 to the contrary of your political beliefs?" He shouted at Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is seen by the tech companies as crucial to the operation of their digital platforms. Under the law, "interactive computer services" are classed as separate to the users who generate content using them. It means, for instance, that Twitter can't be held legally responsible for a hate-filled outburst it allows to be broadcast on its platform, that leads to violence or rioting.

Crucial protection

In court, the tech companies have regularly cited section 230 in defending cases of defamation,  and negligence. But conservative politicians in particular have pushed for reform of the law angered by what they see as a left-leaning bias in content moderation policies.

As with previous hearings involving the CEOs that focused on alleged anti-competitive behaviour and preceded the Department of Justice launching its major antitrust lawsuit against Google, the politicians cherrypicked examples they claim illustrate the misuse of section 230.

The outburst from Cruz was in relation to Twitter and Facebook moderating posts linking to New York Post articles that the newspaper had "smoking gun" emails details Hunter Biden's business dealings in Ukraine. The tech platforms limited distribution of the posts on their platforms due to the unverified status of the emails, concerned that doing so would amount to spreading misinformation in the run-up to the election.

Google's CEO Sundar Pichai calmly told the committee via video link that moderation of its platforms such as Youtube was done without political bias "full stop".

"To do otherwise would be contrary to both our business interests and our mission, which compels us to make information accessible to every type of person, no matter where they live or what they believe," he said.

A way forward

Dorsey at least was able to outline a potential way forward, including offering users clearer explanations of moderation policies, introducing more straightforward appeals processes and even allowing consumers to choose the algorithms serving up their content.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also advocated for Section 230 to remain and that Facebook sought to be "fair and consistent" in moderating content. But he also said that politicians had a role in deciding what content is acceptable, echoing his previous calls for more regulation of tech platforms to give them clearer guidance when it comes to decision making about what is acceptable to distribute in the online world.

Democratic senator and committee member Brian Schatz said the hearing was a "sham". 

The Senate Commerce Committee is run by Republican senators who have a majority in the Senate. Democratic senator and committee member Brian Schatz said the hearing was a "sham" and shouldn't have taken place so close to the election.

"This is bullying and it is for electoral purposes," Schatz said. "Do not let the United States Senate bully you into carrying water for those who want to spread misinformation."

President Trump in May issued an executive order outlining amendments to Section 230 after his own Tweets were flagged by Twitter's moderators. It would make tech companies liable for the content decisions they make, which could have a chilling effect on web services in general.

What it means for us

The Senate would have to confirm the changes outlined in the executive order, which makes the race to control the US Senate critical to the future of social media and content moderation on the web in the general.

Obviously, content moderation by Facebook, Google and Twitter rests on the global application of Section 230. There are some variations in content moderation by region or country based on cultural, religious or legal reasons, but any change to the law in the US would reverberate around the world in terms of impacting how the content we consume is moderated by the tech companies automated systems and legions of human moderators.


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