Google, Facebook, and Twitter CEOs may face subpoenas from Senate panel

How COVID-19 is changing public perception of big tech companies

The Senate Commerce Committee has asked the CEOs of Google, Facebook, and Twitter to appear for testimony on October 1, according to a new report from Politico. It’s an unusually tight timeline for such a high-profile panel, but members have indicated they may issue subpoenas if CEOs do not agree to appear by the end of the day on Thursday.

It’s still possible that other committee members will object to the subpoenas, or that CEOs will find some other way to evade the summons. Google, Facebook and Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

What is Section 230?

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was passed in 1996, says an “interactive computer service” can’t be treated as the publisher or speaker of third-party content. This protects websites from lawsuits if a user posts something illegal, although there are exceptions for pirated and prostitution-related material.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Chris Cox (R-CA) crafted Section 230 so website owners could moderate sites without worrying about legal liability. The law is particularly vital for social media networks, but it covers many sites and services, including news outlets with comment sections — like The Verge. The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls it “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

It’s increasingly controversial and frequently misinterpreted, however. Critics argue that its broad protections let powerful companies ignore real harm to users. On the other hand, some lawmakers incorrectly claim that it only protects “neutral platforms” — a term that’s irrelevant to the law.

The hearing will reportedly focus on measures to amend Section 230, a pivotal law for content moderation practices online. In July, a subcommittee hosted a hearing concerning the PACT Act — an ostensible compromise between bias hawks and more measured reformers — although the results of the discussion were inconclusive.

The Senate Commerce committee has launched numerous investigations into alleged anti-conservative bias on Facebook, and questioned Mark Zuckerberg directly in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. More recent hearings on allegedly anti-competitive behavior by tech companies have been handled by the Judiciary committees, which preside over antitrust issues.

Potential changes to Section 230 have become a lively issue for Congress as the election approaches, and more candidates run afoul of moderation systems. Also on Thursday, Senator Josh Hawley (who is not a member of the Commerce committee) introduced a new bill that would strip platforms of 230 protections if they were found to not be operating in good faith.

“It is time to take a fresh look at the statute and clarify the vague standard of ‘good faith’ for which technology companies receive legal protections,” said Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), a co-sponsor of the bill.

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