By Ryan Tracy
WASHINGTON--The Senate Commerce Committee voted to authorize subpoenas forcing testimony from Facebook Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerbeg, Twitter Inc. CEO Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet Inc. and its subsidiary Google, setting up what could be a contentious hearing with the largest U.S. social-media companies in the midst of a national election.
In taking the unusual step of forcing the executives to testify Thursday, Senators cited the need to review Section 230, a legal provision that grants the companies legal immunity in managing content on their sites, as well as privacy and other issues.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), the committee's chairman, also invoked the Nov. 3 election. "On the eve of a momentous and highly charged election, it is imperative that this committee of jurisdiction and the American people receive a full accounting from the heads of these companies about their content moderation practices," he said Thursday.
Motions to authorize the subpoenas were adopted by voice voice, without opposition from any of the panel's 26 members, both Republicans and Democrats. After the votes, the lawmakers debated whether the hearing should be held before or after the Nov. 3 election. Some Democrats said it ought to be scheduled afterward, but GOP lawmakers who control the committee appeared ready to move forward quickly.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), the committee's top Democrat, had initially objected to the subpoenas, but said she agreed to support them after Mr. Wicker expanded their scope to include privacy issues.
She said she shared Republicans' desire to question the CEOs, but didn't want the hearing to be used to pressure the companies to stop taking down false information.
"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 and misinformation about Covid during a pandemic," she said.
Representatives of the companies had no immediate comment.
The committee first asked the CEOs to testify on Sept. 18, according to people familiar with the matter. Six days later, Mr. Wicker announced he would move to subpoena testimony -- a fast timeline by congressional standards. On Thursday he said the subpoenas were necessary because the CEOs had "declined to participate."
A committee spokeswoman said the panel will contact the companies again to schedule a hearing and would issue the subpoenas if the witnesses don't appear in a timely manner.
"It should speak volumes that every member of this committee just voted to issue subpoenas," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Tex.) "Big tech are the robber barons of the 21st Century."
Mr. Cruz also repeated Republican concerns that social media companies censor conservative content, a claim the companies deny.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii), said he worried Republicans would use the hearing to push the companies to stop taking down false or misleading content. "This feels like an attempt to work the refs five weeks out from the election," he said.
No date for a hearing with the CEOs has been announced.
All three CEOs have previously testified before Congress. In July, Messrs. Pichai and Zuckerberg joined Amazon.com Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook for five hours of adversarial questioning by a House antitrust subcommittee.
While that hearing focused on tech companies' market power, the Senate panel's agenda appeared more focused on social-media content. With the three companies present, senators would be questioning executives in charge of most of the largest U.S. social media platforms: Twitter, Google's YouTube, and Facebook, which owns its eponymous platform as well as Instagram and WhatsApp.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires