Lawmakers fume, CEOs dodge

Key moments from tech’s latest grilling in Congress

The Facebook, Google and Twitter chiefs field questions over online extremism and Covid-19 misinformation

From left, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

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BIZ PRESS GROUP

A congressional reckoning is coming for Silicon Valley, lawmakers told the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter on Thursday at a hearing focused on a rising tide of misinformation and extremism. The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, which began at noon, is drilling into criticisms about ills including Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy, racial hatred and the use of multiple online platforms by the extremists who attacked the Capitol in January. Some lawmakers are also expressing frustration at not getting direct answers about who should bear the responsibility for online toxicity.

This is far from the tech moguls’ first go-around taking heat from lawmakers: The session marks the fourth time Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has testified before Congress in the past year, and the third for Google’s Sundar Pichai and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.

But it is the first time they have appeared before Congress since Democrats took full control of Washington in the November elections, and since January's insurrection at the Capitol.

Democrats have fumed that the companies helped to foment the violence in January by failing to curtail extremist content and political disinformation on their services.

And it’s the first time CEOs have appeared since their companies permanently or indefinitely suspended former President Donald Trump from their social media sites, actions that have drawn fury from Republicans who call it part of a pattern of anti-conservative bias.

Here are the top highlights from Thursday afternoon’s hearing:

Tech CEOs offer opinions on proposed internet rules

The tech chiefs weighed in on a slew of legislative proposals raised by lawmakers at the hearing and countered with a number of their own.

During an exchange with Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), Dorsey said the “most impactful” thing lawmakers could do would be to increase the control and visibility users have over the algorithms that fuel their platforms.

“The real issue is algorithms and giving people more choice around algorithms, more transparency around algorithms,” Dorsey said.

A bipartisan group of senators in 2019 introduced legislation that would require companies to offer users the option to experience their platforms algorithm-free, and there are a number of bills on Capitol Hill aimed at boosting transparency around those systems.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) during a separate exchange asked the CEOs if they would support creating a new federal agency similar to the Federal Trade Commission to regulate social media platforms.

“The solution that you’re talking about could be very effective and positive for helping out,” Zuckerberg said.

Pichai said he’d defer to Congress on the matter, and Dorsey said he’d have an “open mind” but would need to see additional details about the proposal.

Zuckerberg, who earlier in the hearing proposed changes to the tech industry’s liability protections under Section 230, also said he hoped Congress would pass a national data privacy law within the next year or two.

Democrats press platforms about discriminatory advertising, lackluster workforce diversity

House Democrats questioned the tech moguls about ways their companies and platforms may amplify racism and discrimination, including through targeted advertising.

Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) pressed the Facebook, Google and Twitter chiefs on whether their platforms enable racial and ethnic discrimination by allowing advertisers to narrowly target ads in ways that can violate civil rights laws.

Zuckerberg said in response that the company has “taken a number of steps to eliminate ways that people can target” different identity groups. Dorsey said Twitter's advertisers “shouldn't use our ad systems to discriminate.” Pichai outlined ways Google is tailoring some of their new advertising products to address those concerns.

Democratic lawmakers have introduced several proposals to restrict targeted advertising online, a tool they say has been used to spread disinformation and stoke division. Liberal lawmakers have said that social media platforms and other online advertisers shouldn’t be able to profit off discrimination and disinformation.

Separately, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said a lack of diversity inside Silicon Valley has undermined racial equity in the industry and asked the CEOs if they would support a law requiring companies publish information on workforce diversity. None of the CEOs said they were ready to endorse such a proposal.

Zuckerberg: Facebook will stand by Oversight Board’s ruling on Trump

The Facebook chief said the platform would honor whatever decision its Oversight Board makes on whether to reinstate or permanently ban Trump’s account.

“We will respect the decision of the Oversight Board and if they tell us that former President Trump’s account should be reinstated, then we will honor that,” Zuckerberg said in response to a question by Republican Rep. Billy Long of Missouri.

Facebook suspended Trump’s account indefinitely in the wake of the Capitol riot, citing fears about the potential for additional violence. The company later referred his case to its oversight board, made up of outside lawyers and scholars, which could choose to bring Trump back or boot him for good. The board is expected to make a decision by mid-April.

During its launch, Facebook said decisions the board makes on content will be binding.

Zuckerberg: Facebook doesn’t profit from disinformation

Zuckerberg dismissed the notion that his social media platform makes money from the spread of intentionally misleading information, earning an admonishment from one Democratic lawmaker.

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) asked Zuckerberg to answer yes or no if he agrees that his company “has profited from the spread of disinformation.”

“Congressman, I do not agree with that,” Zuckerberg replied. “People do not want to see disinformation on our services and when we do I think it hurts our long-term business.”

McNerney said the response astounded him.

“We all know this is happening," he said. "Profits are being generated from Covid-19 and vaccine disinformation, election disinformation, QAnon conspiracy theories just to name a few things, and it’s baffling that you have a negative answer to that question."

Facebook reported receiving $86 billion in revenue for 2020.

No 'yes' or 'no' from Facebook or Google on responsibility for Capitol assault

Zuckerberg and Pichai stumbled when Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) asked them to take ownership for the spread of election disinformation on their platforms in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Doyle, who chairs the panel's communications and technology subcommittee, asked for a “yes” or “no” answer on whether their companies bear “some responsibility for disseminating disinformation related to the election and the #StopTheSteal movement that led to the attack on the Capitol.”

Zuckerberg declined to provide a direct answer. When pressed on it later, he said the responsibility "lies with the people who took the actions to break the law and do the insurrection, and secondarily also the people who spread that content."

Pichai also declined to provide a “yes” or “no” response, but said people at Google “always feel a deep sense of responsibility." He added, “But I think we worked hard this election.”

Dorsey was the only tech executive to provide a direct affirmative response. “Yes, but you have to take into consideration the broader ecosystem,” he said.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the chair of the full committee, hammered Zuckerberg and Pichai for dodging the questions.

“You definitely give the impression that you don’t think that you’re actively in any way promoting this misinformation and extremism, and I totally disagree with that," Pallone said. He continued: “You’re not passive bystanders. You’re not nonprofits or religious organizations that are trying to do a good job for humanity. You’re making money.”

‘Your platforms are my biggest fear as a parent,’ McMorris Rodgers says

The committee's top Republican, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, offered a personal rebuke to Facebook, Google and Twitter, telling the CEOs that their platforms are her “biggest fear as a parent.”

“Do you know what convinced me Big Tech is a destructive force?” McMorris Rodgers said. “It’s how you’ve abused your power to manipulate and harm our children.”

She continued: “I’m a mom of three school-aged kids. My husband and I are fighting the Big Tech battles in our household every day. It’s a battle for their development, a battle for their mental health, and ultimately, a battle for their safety.”

She added that other parents have reached out to her to recount their own struggles, including children who suffer depression or have lost interest in sports and activities while glued to their electronic devices.

Children’s online safety and the impact of social media on kids’ health is one of several tech issues that have united Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers have proposed legislation to set new limits for what personal information companies can collect from children and voiced concern about social media addiction among young people.

Democrats vow to legislate against online disinformation and extremism

The committee's Democratic leaders had a clear message for the tech companies ahead of the hearing: The time for talking is over.

Pallone said in an interview on Wednesday that the panel is determined to use the session as a launching pad for legislation to rein in the companies.

“We've heard a lot, but now this is the beginning of our effort to figure out what to write, what legislation to write,” Pallone said.

Pallone said the focus of those legislative efforts will be figuring out how to discourage online platforms from amplifying disinformation while reaping the monetary benefits. “The idea is to disincentivize this extremist behavior so that they act in the public interest rather than rather than making a buck,” he said.

Pallone declined to provide a timetable for advancing legislation. A big challenge will be finding common ground among the lawmakers' multiple concerns about the tech industry's behavior, including Democrats' worries about the spread of hate speech and harmful falsehoods versus Republicans' accusations of censorship and anti-conservative bias.

Facebook strikes the most aggressive pose in urging changes to liability shield

Zuckerberg offered his most detailed proposal to date for tweaking the tech industry’s liability protections, while the Twitter and Google CEOs have urged lawmakers to show restraint. The decades-old law known as Section 230, which shields websites from liability over user content, has come under fire from lawmakers amid scrutiny of how tech companies moderate material on their platforms.

At the hearing, Zuckerberg urged Congress to make platforms' legal protections contingent on demonstrating that they have systems in place to identify and remove "clearly illegal content," such as posts involving sex trafficking, child exploitation or terrorism, providing further details to a proposal made public Wednesday in prepared testimony.

Pallone and other lawmakers have rebuked Zuckerberg's proposal, saying it seemed mainly aimed at assuaging public outrage or entrenching Facebook's power over smaller rivals. Zuckerberg stressed at the hearing that he believes these requirements should only apply to larger platforms and suggested smaller companies could be exempt.

Pichai focused his written testimony in urging lawmakers to be wary of making sweeping changes to the law, which he said could have vast negative consequences for digital services big and small.

“We are … concerned that many recent proposals to change Section 230 — including calls to repeal it altogether — would not serve that objective well,” he wrote. “In fact, they would have unintended consequences — harming both free expression and the ability of platforms to take responsible action to protect users in the face of constantly evolving challenges.”

But during the hearing he said Zuckerberg had some “good proposals” for the law and that Google would “certainly welcome legislative approaches in that area.”

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