By Ryan Tracy and John D. McKinnon
WASHINGTON -- Chiefs of the largest social-media companies tangled with U.S. senators over their role in public discourse six days before the end of an election that has made them the target of criticism across the political spectrum.
Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter Inc. CEO Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and YouTube owner Alphabet Inc. have spent the years since the 2016 election rewriting their policies and taking a more active role in moderating online speech -- in part to avoid a spotlight like the one placed on them Wednesday.
Instead, the hearing reflected deep discontent with social-media platforms' power -- and equally deep divisions about how to address it. The session featured partisan charges and countercharges as well as frequent testy exchanges between senators and the CEOs.
Mr. Dorsey faced perhaps the harshest questions, including queries about Twitter's decisions to label President Trumps' tweets and to temporarily block users from linking to recent New York Post articles that made allegations about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, which his campaign has denied.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Tex.) accused Twitter of acting as a "Democratic Super PAC" when it decided to block tweets of the articles, including by the Post.
"Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report?" Mr. Cruz asked.
"I hear the concerns and acknowledge them," Mr. Dorsey said, adding that the answer is better transparency about platforms' decision making. He denied that Twitter was favoring Democratic causes and said the company reversed its decision about the Post articles after recognizing it had been made in error.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R., Colo.) questioned Twitter's decisions to label some posts by Mr. Trump but not others by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatening Israel and denying the Holocaust.
"I just don't understand how Twitter can claim to want a world of less hate and misinformation while you simultaneously let the kind of content that the ayatollah has tweeted out to flourish," Mr. Gardner said.
Mr. Dorsey said Twitter has policies against limited categories of false information, including "manipulated media, public health, specifically Covid[-19], and civic integrity." Mr. Trump's labeled tweets addressed mail-in voting and the coronavirus.
He said Twitter also has policies against the incitement of violence but characterized the Iranian leader's statements as newsworthy "sabre-rattling, which is part of the speech of world leaders," adding "speech against a country's own citizens we believe is different and could cause immediate harm."
Democrats on the panel termed the pre-election hearing a "sham" and an "embarrassment." Some accused Republicans of trying to "work the refs" by pressuring the CEOs to ease their content restrictions.
"I'm not going to use my time to ask any questions, because this is nonsense," said Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii). He cast the hearing as part of a Republican effort "to bully the CEOs of private companies into carrying out a hit job on a presidential candidate."
The hearing's nominal topic was Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which gives online companies broad immunity from legal liability for user-generated content and wide latitude to control what appears on their platforms.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), the panel's chairman, opened the hearing by accusing the companies of censoring conservative views -- a long-running charge by Republican lawmakers as well as the president that the executives dispute. The liability shield, he said, 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."
The tech executives defended Section 230, with Messrs. Zuckerberg and Dorsey saying 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. Zuckerberg said the debate showed the status quo isn't acceptable to members of both parties.
"I believe Congress should update the law to make sure it's working as intended," he said. "When a private company is making these calls, we need a more accountable process that people feel is legitimate and that gives platforms certainty."
Mr. Dorsey expressed openness to requiring more transparency around company practices, which the Trump administration also has advocated. But he cautioned against imposing burdens on smaller tech firms. "We mustn't entrench the largest companies any further," he said, hinting at Twitter's smaller size relative to Facebook's.
Mr. Pichai didn't close the door to change but warned of unintended outcomes. "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.
He also pushed back on accusations of bias, saying, "Let me be clear: We approach our work without political bias, full stop. To do otherwise would be contrary to both our business interests and our mission."
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.
Democrats asked the CEOs about the spread of false information on social media and platforms' efforts to contain it, as well as how they share advertising revenue with local news publishers that rely on the platforms to reach readers.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), the panel's top Democrat, urged Republicans not to use the hearing to create a "chilling effect" on internet platforms' attempts to block misinformation and hate speech. "We all know what happened in 2016," she added, recalling Russia's widespread online interference to help elect Mr. Trump. The big tech companies have stepped up their efforts to limit abuses since then.
"The issue is not that these companies before us today are taking too many posts down. The issue is that they are leaving too many dangerous posts up," said Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass.).
Republicans focused on Twitter's blocking and Facebook's limiting of the disputed New York Post articles, which the outlet said were based on email exchanges with Hunter Biden, the Democratic candidate's son, and provided by allies of Mr. 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.
In blocking users from linking to the articles, Twitter initially cited a potential violation of its rules regarding hacked materials. It later said the articles violated its policies on displaying private information like email addresses and phone numbers without a person's permission. Mr. Dorsey has said the company's failure to give context around its actions was "unacceptable."
Twitter's initial move came after Facebook also limited the articles' distribution 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. The company says such restrictions expire after a week if no fact-check is produced, which is what happened in the case of the Post's content.
A Facebook spokesman said the action was in keeping with rules announced last year to prevent election interference. Facebook said in a blog post last October that it would temporarily reduce distribution of certain content until the facts were better established to stem misinformation.
Mr. Wicker recently introduced legislation along with two other influential Republican senators to curb the reach of Section 230. The bill's main provisions would reduce the companies' latitude to police content by tightening standards for material that can be removed or restricted while maintaining the protection.
Companies would still be free to remove content that is considered lewd or harassing, for example. But the legislation would restrict the platforms' ability to censor material deemed "otherwise objectionable" under Section 230. Critics say that provision of the law has given the companies too much leeway. Instead, content could be removed under the law only for more specific findings of unsuitability, such as being excessively violent.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires