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Facebook, Google, Twitter chiefs face grilling at Senate hearing

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The chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter on Wednesday faced heated questions on content moderation during a hearing before a US Senate panel on tech companies’ legal immunity.

Republicans on the Senate Commerce committee accused the tech bosses, who all appeared remotely, of suppressing conservative voices.

In particular, the lawmakers grilled Twitter’s Jack Dorsey about his company’s decision to block an unverified article by the New York Post about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

“Mr Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear?” Republican Senator Ted Cruz thundered. “We’re not doing that,” Dorsey replied.

The story in the conservative-leaning tabloid, which was not verified by other outlets, cited emails reportedly obtained from the laptop of Biden’s son Hunter, suggesting that Biden had used his former position as vice president to enrich his son.

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Twitter initially blocked users from sharing the article, saying it had violated its hacked materials policy. But Dorsey stressed that his firm later reversed the decision.

Twitter has in recent months slapped misinformation labels and fact checks on some of US President Donald Trump’s posts pertaining to the coronavirus and the November 3 presidential election.

Republican senators criticized the social media company for not taking similar measures against tweets by foreign leaders, though Dorsey countered that it has taken action on posts from many world leaders.

Cruz also attacked Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, saying the tech giant “has more power than any company on the face of the planet.”

Although the hearing covered a wide range of topics, from content moderation to antitrust concerns, it was ostensibly about reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act from the 1990s.

The provision allows tech companies to avoid being prosecuted for the actions of third parties on their platform. It also gives platforms the freedom to take action on individual posts.

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Trump and his Republican allies have repeatedly denounced the law in recent months. Earlier this year, the president issued an executive challenging tech platforms’ legal immunity, in which he accused them of abusing their power to promote a political agenda.

“Repeal Section 230!” Trump tweeted during the hearing. Calls for reforming Section 230 have been growing ahead of the election, and intensified after Twitter and Facebook limited the spread of the controversial New York Post article. There is little chance that Congress would act on changing the law this year.

The tech bosses defended the law during the hearing, saying it is key to free expression online.”Removing Section 230 will remove speech from the internet,” Dorsey warned in his opening remarks, while Pichai told senators to be “very thoughtful” about any changes to the law.

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg said that without the law, companies would likely have to censor more to avoid litigation.

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However, he appeared open to considered reforms. “Congress should update the law to make sure that it’s working as intended,” Zuckerberg said, highlighting the need for transparency.

Republican Senator Roger Wicker, who chairs the committee, said the liability shield of Section 230 had protected online platforms from endless lawsuits, but that it had also given them the ability “to control, stifle, and even censor” content they dislike.

“The time has come for that free pass to end,” he said. The tech bosses appeared remotely after the Senate panel threatened to subpoena them.

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