A US Senate hearing to reform an internet law and hold tech companies accountable for how they moderate content has turned into a political scuffle with lawmakers going after the companies and attacking each other.
Congress is split on ways to hold Big Tech accountable under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – which protects companies from liability over content posted by users but also lets firms shape political discourse.
Republicans used most of their time during Wednesday’s hearing to accuse the companies of selective censorship against conservatives.
Democrats primarily focused on insufficient action against misinformation that interferes with the US presidential election.
In response to a limited number of questions discussing the law, the chief executives of Twitter Inc, Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google said it was crucial to free expression on the internet.
They said Section 230 gives them the tools to strike a balance between preserving free speech and moderating content, even as they appeared open to suggestions the law needs moderate changes.
All three CEOs also agreed the companies should be held liable if the platforms act as a publisher but denied being the referees over political speech – a claim that angered some Republicans.
Senator Ted Cruz went after Twitter’s Jack Dorsey after the CEO said Twitter has no influence over elections.
“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,” Cruz said, referring to the platform’s decision to block stories from the New York Post about the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Ahead of the hearing, the senator released a picture on Twitter titled “Free Speech showdown Cruz vs Dorsey” that showed him and Twitter’s Dorsey pitted against each other.
Democratic Senator Brian Schatz said he did not have any questions, calling the hearing “nonsense”. “This is bullying and it is for electoral purposes,” he said.
Other Democrats including Tammy Baldwin, Ed Markey and Amy Klobuchar also said the hearing was held to help President Donald Trump’s re-election effort.
Trump, who alleges the companies’ stifle conservative voices, tweeted “Repeal Section 230!” during the hearing.
Dorsey, who drew the most amount of criticism from Republicans, warned the committee that eroding the foundation of Section 230 could significantly hurt how people communicate online.
Google’s Sundar Pichai said the search engine operates without political bias and doing otherwise would be against its business interests.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who briefly had difficulty with his internet connection at the start of the hearing, said he supports changing the law but also warned tech platforms are likely to censor more to avoid legal risks if Section 230 is repealed. Biden has expressed support for revoking the law.