The scene had the usual cast of Big Tech characters: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, moving his expressionless face like a robot while speaking in platitudes; Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, sort of resembling an ancient sage, with buzzed hair and a trailing, grizzled beard; and Sundar Pichai, CEO of what is arguably the backbone of the Internet, Google, somehow being the only one of the trio to fumble with his video stream.

Lawmakers in turn berated the executives for evils spawned by their platforms — from the fomenting of racism and conspiracy theories, to purported restricting of speech by conservatives, to the fanning harassment and violence, including the storming of the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6, and contributing to a surge in teen suicides. The real matter at issue underneath all that, however, was Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

In place since 1996, the law states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In other words, unlike newspapers or other publications, they don’t face liability for distributing false or defamatory information, or even for allowing criminal activity to flourish on their platforms, such as securities fraud, or worse, child sex trafficking.

The clause, which was intended to protect a fledging industry, has been used by now-multi-billion-dollar tech firms as a magic bullet to kill off countless lawsuits over a wide range of harms. Over the past several years, lawmakers have occasionally questioned social media titans about abuses on their platforms, and threatened to do away with the provision. The threats generally dissipated. But this time seems different.

During a hearing Thursday before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Congressional representatives from both sides of the aisle took tough stances with the executives and made it clear that a substantial attempt at revising the law is likely inevitable. Several representatives suggested Twitter, Facebook and Google's Youtube algorithms encouraging users to stay on the sites, increasing ad revenue, was a factor in the various social ills.

The events of Jan. 6, and Twitter and Facebook’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump from their platforms over concerns he used them to encourage rioting and undermine the results of the 2020 election, were also flash points. Some lawmakers focused on the Capitol invasion and others on the unprecedented power over speech wielded by the tech firms.

“While it may be true that some bad actors will shout fire in a crowded theater, by promoting harmful content, your platforms are handing them a megaphone to be heard in every theater across the country and the world,” Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., a Democrat from New Jersey who chairs the committee, told the tech CEOs. “Your business model itself has become the problem, and the time for self-regulation is over.”

Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the ranking Republican on the committee, told the CEOs “you have broken my trust.” 

The companies have “failed to promote the battle of ideas and free speech” and have abused power “to manipulate and harm our children,” she said, describing how she witnessed  negative effects of using the platforms on her own children’s mental health.

“These are serious issues and to be honest it seems like you all just shrug off billion-dollar fines,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat from Pennsylvania who chairs the House telecom subcommittee. “Your companies need to be held accountable.” (All three companies have been subject to hefty penalties for privacy violations or other problems in either the U.S. or the European Union.)

With a possible loss of protections under Section 230 looming, the tech CEOs appeared at times to be manifesting stages of grief.

Denial: Dorsey

“Our process to moderate content is designed to constantly evolve,” Dorsey told the panel, suggesting nothing is broken that needs legislative fixing. Freedom under Section 230 is “critical” to the company’s efforts, he said.

“Enforcing policy is a business decision,” he added. “Different businesses and services will have different policies, some more liberal than others. And we believe it’s critical this variety continues to exist.”

Bargaining: Zuckerberg

“We are ready to work with you to move beyond hearings and get started with real reform,” the Facebook CEO said in his opening remarks.

He later suggested that the lawmakers might consider amending the provision to require big tech firms to provide more transparency, and report regularly about their self-policing and content moderation efforts — something the company already does.

Acceptance: Pichai

Along with other tech CEOs, Pichai highlighted the challenges faced by social media platforms in trying to combat disinformation, and urged lawmakers to preserve Section 230. Google pulled more than 3 billion false ads from its platforms in 2020 alone, he noted. Still, his comments at times appeared to project more defeat than defiance.

“The hope is we can make things better,” he told the lawmakers. “We at Google are committed to that work.”

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.

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