Senators Threaten Regulatory Crackdown on Facebook and Twitter Content Policies

November 18, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appears on a screen as he speaks remotely during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, in Washington. The committee summoned the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google to testify during the hearing. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – A Senate committee left little doubt Tuesday that changes are coming to social media giants Facebook and Twitter for their policies on controlling content posted on their websites.

Democrats and Republicans at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing accused the companies of favoring some kinds of political information while censoring or downplaying others.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, “They’re having to make decisions that offend people on the left and the right.”

He also warned against “heightened risk of mental health problems” for chronic users of social media.

The main point of contention is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which makes social media companies and Internet service providers immune from liability for the content posted on them by third parties.

The Good Samaritan part of the regulation also gives them immunity for removing or moderating third-party material they consider obscene or offensive, even if it is constitutionally protected speech.

However, they must be acting in “good faith” by avoiding favoritism or bias.

Some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Facebook and Twitter are not acting in good faith.

Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the companies “misuse their bigness.”

He advocates breaking them up under federal antitrust laws that seek to prevent corporations from gaining too much control over the U.S. economy and industries.

“Change is going to come, no question,” Blumenthal said.

He said social media companies have empowered “child predators, white supremacists and human traffickers” with information on their websites.

“The American public deserves and wants real reform and responsibility,” Blumenthal said.

One possibility he mentioned was stripping Facebook’s ownership of Instagram, a worldwide photo and video sharing social networking service. 

Other senators said Section 230 has outlived its original purpose. Congress approved the regulation while the Internet was emerging as a major new technology. Section 230 has been called “the twenty-six words that created the Internet.”

“The Internet has outgrown Section 230,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

He recommended that the Internet companies cooperate with Congress in developing new regulations.

“I would encourage both of you not to wait for the lawsuits,” he told the social media chief executives.

Criticism of the social media sites grew when the FBI revealed that Russian agents used Facebook and Twitter to promote the 2016 presidential election campaign of Donald Trump while defaming his opponent.

More complaints arose during the 2020 election campaign when the Internet companies blocked a New York Post investigative story that accused President-elect Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, of profiting from business dealings in Ukraine and China. The story implied the president-elect overlooked the apparent conflict of interest created by his son.

Several bills have been introduced in Congress this year that limit the Section 230 immunity for the social media companies.

One of them is the Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act, which would allow social media users to sue Internet companies with more than 30 million monthly U.S. visitors and $1.5 billion in global revenues if the companies fail to uniformly enforce content rules. The plaintiffs could seek damages as high as $5,000 plus legal fees.

Another pending bill, called the Platform Accountability and Consumer Technology Act, would require Internet platforms to publish quarterly reports on their efforts to moderate or remove user content from their platforms. They would be required to remove illegal content if a court ordered it.

Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey cautioned the senators against new government rules that represent a misguided attempt to protect the public.

“Such actions could have the opposite effect, likely resulting in increased removal of speech, the proliferation of frivolous lawsuits, and severe limitations on our collective ability to address harmful content and protect people online,” Dorsey said in his testimony.

He denied allegations that Twitter employees or executives showed favoritism in information it allows to be posted or that is blocked.

Many of the decisions about allowable content are determined by computer algorithms, not people showing bias, he said.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg agreed Internet rules need to be updated but he warned against heavy-handed government intervention.

“The challenges that we face are deeper than any one platform,” Zuckerberg said. “They’re about how we want to balance basic social equities that we all care about, like free expression, public safety and privacy.”

Instead of more government control over Internet content, he suggested that social media companies should be more transparent about their policies and practices on blocking or tagging suspicious content.

Facebook users want accurate information but, “They also don’t want us to decide what is true and false,” Zuckerberg said.

Facebook uses an international network of employees to check the facts of information posted on the website but sometimes other persons still post questionable material, he said.

Facebook doesn’t create the content, Zuckerberg said, “We give people a voice to publish things.”

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