A broader theme of the hearing was to establish what responsibilities tech companies should have for moderating content, and what role the US government should play — a critical question that will inform a legislative effort on online content next year, once a new Congress is sworn in.
Laying down baseline expectations for the outcome of that effort, leading members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said they did not think it’s appropriate for the US government to get directly involved in online content moderation.
“I am not, nor should we be on this committee, interested in being a member of the speech police,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the panel’s top Democrat.
“We’ve got to find a way to make sure that when Twitter and Facebook make a decision about what’s reliable and what’s not, what to keep up and what to take down, that there’s transparency in the system,” said Graham. “And I think Section 230 has to be changed, because we can’t get there from here without change.”
The executives and lawmakers spent hours debating, among other things, whether social media platforms are analogous to news publishers or telecommunications companies, the outcome of which could determine what regulatory framework Congress may seek to impose on tech platforms.
Zuckerberg pushed back on the parallels, arguing that social media represents an entirely new sector of the economy that the federal government should hold accountable under a unique model.
“We do have responsibilities, and it may make sense for there to be liability for some of the content that is on the platform,” Zuckerberg said. “But I don’t think the analogies to these other industries … will ever be fully the right way to think about this.”
The tech companies proposed different approaches.
Dorsey, by contrast, said federal policy should not depend too heavily on any single set of algorithms to moderate content. Instead, he argued, consumers should be able to choose among many algorithms — or even to opt out of having content decisions made algorithmically altogether. He warned against any approach that could risk “entrenching” the dominance of large, heavily resourced social media platforms that could comply with and enforce them, in what may have been a jab at Facebook.
“As we look forward,” Dorsey said, “we have more and more of our decisions, of our operations, moving to algorithms which have a difficult time explaining why they make decisions, bringing transparency around those decisions. And that is why we believe that we should have more choice in how these algorithms are applied to our content, whether we use them at all, so we can turn them on and off — and have clarity around the outcomes that they are projecting and how they affect our experience.”
Zuckerberg, meanwhile, also acknowledged a misstep in how Facebook handled a page on its platform that urged armed counter-protesters to gather in response to racial equity protests in Kenosha, Wisc. Two people were killed at the protests.
But as Congress turns its eye to legislating, the online content debate is likely to shift from tech companies’ responses to individual incidents to the job that lawmakers were sent to Washington to perform.
“I fully expect Congress is going to act,” said Sen. Thom Tillis. “In the next Congress, we’re going to produce an outcome.”