Social Media Executives Advocate Against More Government Regulation

October 29, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg addresses students at Georgetown University. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The chief executive officers of the world’s largest social media companies assured a skeptical U.S. Senate committee Wednesday they try to remain neutral in deciding which Internet content they block.

They also advocated against government regulation that could interfere with free speech on the Internet.

“We don’t always get it right, but we try to be fair and consistent,” Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The Senate is considering legislation to modify Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. It provides legal immunity for website publishers — such as Facebook, Twitter and Google — for information posted by third parties.

It also protects the social media companies from liability for removing or moderating content posted by other parties they decide is obscene, threatening or offensive. The right to remove or modify content falls under the “Good Samaritan” protection of Section 230.

Some Republicans say the social media companies use their Good Samaritan protection to censor content from conservative groups. They say the alleged censorship is hurting the presidential campaign of Donald Trump but helping his Democratic opponent Joe Biden.

Zuckerberg and the other chief executives denied any intentional bias against conservatives.

“Democrats say we don’t remove enough content, Republicans say we remove too much,” Zuckerberg said.

If any regulatory changes are needed, they should require greater transparency by social media companies about how they control content, he said.

New regulations should not create a disincentive for free speech, which currently is protected by Section 230, he said. The risk is that American social media companies lose their leadership on the Internet.

“It’s important that we don’t prevent the next generation of ideas from being built,” Zuckerberg said.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the social media companies appear to follow a “double standard.”

They advocate for free speech but also suppress content they dislike, he said. The result is “censorship and suppression of conservative voices on the Internet,” Wicker said.

The formerly small companies that used Section 230 protections to thrive have now grown into some of the world’s largest corporations, who use the immunity from liability to advance their own political viewpoints, he said.

“The time has come for that free pass to end,” Wicker said.

Democrats at the Senate hearing generally had milder criticisms for Facebook, Twitter and Google that fell short of a call for tougher regulations.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was concerned that the social media companies have gained dominance over much of the news industry, particularly newspapers. Thousands of journalists have lost their jobs as their employers lose advertising revenue to their social media competitors.

“We want to have a very healthy and dynamic news media across the United States,” Cantwell said. She did not suggest specific alternatives.

She also wanted assurances that Facebook and Twitter could no longer be used by foreign governments like Russia, China and Iran to spread disinformation that might alter the results of U.S. elections.

Jack Dorsey, chief executive officer of Twitter, denied a liberal bias that favored Biden or other Democrats.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. said Twitter has censored 65 tweets by Trump but none by Biden.

“We haven’t censored the U.S president,” Dorsey said.

“Oh yes you have,” Blackburn replied.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet Inc./Google, said he knew of his company’s power in the Internet but tried to use it responsibly for the information it blocks or posts.

“Google is deeply aware of both the opportunities and risks the Internet creates,” Pichai said.

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