By Ryan Tracy and John D. McKinnon
WASHINGTON -- Chief executives of the largest social media companies will testify Wednesday before the Senate Commerce Committee in a hearing examining their platforms' role in shaping political discourse.
Less than a week before Election Day, members of the Republican-led panel are expected to question Facebook Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter Inc. CEO Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and YouTube owner Alphabet Inc., about their treatment of politically charged content, from advertising to news to candidates' posts.
The high-profile stage reflects bipartisan concern about the companies' increasingly central role in public debate and the distribution of news, although Republicans and Democrats are coming at the issue from different perspectives.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), the panel's chairman, has accused the companies of censoring conservative views -- a charge the executives dispute. The hearing will focus on what he calls the "unintended consequences" of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a law that gives online companies broad immunity from legal liability for user-generated content and wide latitude to control what does or doesn't appear on their platforms.
In testimony submitted to the Senate panel and viewed by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Zuckerberg said he supported changing Section 230, noting that "the debate about Section 230 shows that people of all political persuasions are unhappy with the status quo."
"I believe Congress should update the law to make sure it's working as intended," Mr. Zuckerberg is expected to say. "We support the ideas around transparency and industry collaboration that are being discussed in some of the current bipartisan proposals."
Mr. Wicker, in his opening statement, will say the liability shield has protected companies from "potentially ruinous lawsuits. But it has also given these internet platforms the ability to control, stifle, and even censor content in whatever manner meets their respective 'standards.' The time has come for that free pass to end."
Democrats questioned Mr. Wicker's push to hold the hearing before next Tuesday's election but didn't object to calling the CEOs to testify. They are likely to ask about other topics, such as the spread of false information on social media and platforms' efforts to contain it.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), the top Democrat on the panel, is expected to ask the CEOs about a report her office issued on Tuesday arguing the companies are endangering local news organizations.
Republicans are likely to focus on Twitter's blocking and Facebook's limiting of recent New York Post articles that made allegations about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, which his campaign has denied.
The Post said the articles were based on email exchanges with Hunter Biden, the Democratic candidate's son, provided by allies of President Trump.
The Justice Department weighed in Tuesday, writing to the Senate panel that the episodes show the need for Congress to pare back Section 230 immunity.
Twitter blocked users from posting links to the articles, initially citing a potential violation of its rules regarding hacked materials. The company later said the articles violated its policies on displaying private information like email addresses and phone numbers without a person's permission. Mr. Dorsey said the company's failure to give context around its actions was "unacceptable."
Twitter's move came after Facebook also limited the distribution of the articles on its platform, saying it was awaiting guidance from its third-party fact-checking partners -- independent organizations that routinely review the accuracy of viral content. Facebook slowed the spread of the Post articles pending a decision by those partners. Facebook says such restrictions expire after a week if no fact-check is produced, which is what happened in the case of the Post's story.
A company spokesman said the action was in keeping with rules Facebook announced last year to prevent election interference. Facebook said in a blog post last October it would temporarily reduce distribution of certain content until the facts were better established to stem misinformation.
In testimony submitted to the Senate panel and viewed by the Journal, Messrs. Zuckerberg and Dorsey said they strive to balance users' right to free expression with the need to protect public safety. They argued Section 230 gives them the tools to strike that balance, though they appeared to signal openness to moderate changes.
Mr. Dorsey also said more transparency around company practices should be required, a change that the Trump administration also has advocated. "I believe the best way to address our mutually-held concerns is to require the publication of moderation processes and practices, a straightforward process to appeal decisions, and best efforts around algorithmic choice," he said in prepared testimony.
Mr. Pichai didn't close the door to change but warned against unintended consequences. "As you think about how to shape policy in this important area, I would urge the Committee to be very thoughtful about any changes to Section 230 and to be very aware of the consequences those changes might have on businesses and consumers," he said.
Some see Google's YouTube unit as a significant source of election-related misinformation, and many conservatives contend that Google's ubiquitous search function is often biased against their points of view.
Some on the right also have criticized YouTube's content moderation practices as well.
Mr. Pichai pushed back on those accusations. "We approach our work without political bias, full stop. To do otherwise would be contrary to both our business interests and our mission," he said.
Jeff Horwitz contributed to this article.
Write to Ryan Tracy at email@example.com and John D. McKinnon at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires