(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Until Wednesday’s Senate Commerce Committee’s hearing on Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act — which shields social media companies from legal liability for the content posted on their platforms — one could be forgiven for believing that the idea of reforming or eliminating it was worthy of serious debate.
After all, Washington policy wonks had been saying for years that tech giants like Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google had long since outgrown Section 230, which was intended to protect startups from frivolous — but potentially ruinous — lawsuits. More recently, conservatives had been clamoring to strip Big Tech from Section 230 protection because (in their view) Facebook and Twitter were favoring liberal speech while censoring conservative speech.
A number of Republican legislators have sponsored bills that would either eliminate or reform Section 230. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump tweeted “REPEAL SECTION 230!!!” Even Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has gotten in on the act, making it plain that he would love to have someone bring a Section 230 case so he could overturn it.
But then came Wednesday’s hearing, which featured Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, and Google’s Sundai Pichai as witnesses. And while the legal immunity bestowed upon Big Tech by Section 230 is certainly worth grappling with, that’s not what took place at the hearing. Not even close. Then again, you don’t schedule a Senate hearing six days from a presidential election if your goal is to have a sober-minded policy discussion. This hearing was all about politics, with the Republican senators trying to score points with voters — and Trump — by trying to prove that their side was being treated unfairly by the San Francisco-area platforms (“San Francisco” being code for “liberal elites,” of course). The three chief executive officers played the role of pinatas.
“Who the hell elected you, Mr. Dorsey?” Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas asked the Twitter boss. Twitter, he claimed, had censored the New York Post’s article about the emails in Hunter Biden’s laptop, while “gleefully” allowing the New York Times story about Trump’s taxes to be posted unimpeded. “Why do you persist in behaving like a Democratic super Pac?”
“You almost always censor — block content, fact check, or label content — of conservatives,” said Mike Lee, Republican from Utah. “But I don’t see the suppression of high-profile liberals. How about Obama? Planned Parenthood? Emily’s list?” He demanded that the tech CEOs name a single high-profile liberal who had been censored.
“You allow murderous dictators around the world to freely use your platform,” Florida Senator Rick Scott told Dorsey. He then put up a tweet from Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, about the importance of eliminating “the Zionist regime.” “Why has the Ayatollah not been blocked?” He added, ominously, “You can’t just pick and choose which views are allowed on your platform and expect to keep the immunity granted by Section 230.”
There are reasonable answers to these questions. It’s important to allow the people to see what world leaders are saying, even if their tweets are noxious. Liberals don’t get fact-checked as much as Trump because his tweets are often not just untrue but, when the subject is Covid-19, genuinely harmful. And while Dorsey said it was a mistake for Twitter to have blocked the New York Post story — and the decision was reversed within 24 hours — the real reason, as Zuckerberg explained, was that the FBI had warned the social media companies to be on the lookout for a “hack and leak” operation close to the election.
Not that anyone on the Republican side was terribly interested in the answers they got from the three men. The badgering was relentless, even when the tech executives agreed with them. Dorsey, for instance, said that Twitter needed to be more transparent about its rules for content moderation, and had to start allowing customers who were blocked to appeal the decision. Zuckerberg said that he didn’t think the platforms should be the ones making all the decisions about what content should be taken down. Congress, he said, needed to establish some rules. (Not surprisingly, though, none of the three men agreed with the Republicans about eliminating Section 230.)
As for the Democrats, they mostly railed about the fact that the hearing was taking place. “This is an embarrassment,” said Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii. “It is a sham.” To the Democrats, the hearing was an effort to intimidate the social media companies so that they would stop fact-checking or taking down Republican posts that contained obvious lies. Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico asked them if they would keep “pushing back even if you are threatened by powerful Republicans?” They all said yes. Well, what else were they going to say?
It is completely reasonable to reexamine Section 230, which became law before Facebook, Google and Twitter even existed. It is one of those policy areas, along with antitrust and data privacy, that deserve real congressional hearings, from which might emerge fresh ideas.
There’s always January.
(The penultimate paragraph of this column was corrected to show that Section 230 preceded Facebook’s founding.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."
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