US Senate Commerce Hearing: Section 230

On October 28th, the US Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing to discuss Section 230. (Here’s a descriptive page on 230 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.) In short, online entities that host content provided by other providers (e.g. users or publishers) are shielded from certain laws which might otherwise hold the online entity legally responsible. This is the very basic gist of Section 230 when it was included in a bill signed into law in 1996.

Unfortunately, the title of the hearing was “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?”, and it was held only six days before the US Presidential election. In the context of President Donald Trump’s numerous labeled tweets on Twitter, and Twitter also blocking the sharing of a New York Post article about Joe Biden’s son, the hearing had very political overtones.

I’m not writing this post to delve and squabble over the partisan aspects of the hearing. In fact I’m glad it brought ‘230’ to the public’s attention and made headlines. It’s very pertinent legislation signed almost a quarter century ago which continues to shape the behavior, products, and policy of the internet giants and the products to which we’re addicted. As expert witnesses (voluntarily, not by subpoena) the committee hearing included Mr. Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Mr Sundar Pichai (Alphabet / Google), and Mr. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook).

The actual webcast is 4h12m long, below are some notables from the hearing’s website. Each committee member was allotted seven minutes for questions to the witnesses, so you can jump around as desired. But I found it really worthwhile to listen to the hearing for the sake of removing news/media filters before it gets to your ears:

  • (The webcast displays the title page through 28:35, skip it.)
  • Mr. Dorsey’s PDF testimony; specifically section III titled “Empowering Algorithmic Choice.” Twitter has arduously honed its algorithms to best float to your feed the tweets you would like to read (i.e. maximizing eye-ball time). Mr. Dorsey’s remarks here are acquiescing to industry experts’ recommendations that might help tamper the echo chamber.
  • Political slant: conservatives tend to want these companies to be more hands-off on content, while liberals would like to see more moderation for specific causes:
    • 30:55 (Senator Roger Wicker – R) “This liability shield has been pivotal in online platforms from endless and potentially ruinous lawsuits. But it has also given these internet platforms the ability to control, stifle, and even censor content in whatever manner meets their respective standards. The time has come for that free pass to end.”
    • 42:50 (Senator Maria Cantwell – D) “I hope today, we will get a report from the witnesses on exactly what they have been doing to clamp down on election interference.”
  • Mr. Pichai’s opening remarks at 52:40. Google is clearly the secondary invite to this hearing, and listening to Mr. Pichai’s sidestepping of the direct aim of the meeting by describing how “the internet has been a powerful force for good”, or how Google helps mothers answer “how can I get my baby to sleep through the night” is politically savvy.
  • Twitter’s terms of service insight at 1:11:00 through 1:14:00, Mr. Dorsey explains how radical (jihad, annihilation of Zion) tweets by foreign leaders are considered “sabre rattling” and thus not tagged.
  • Misinformation, at 1:24:05 Mr. Dorsey goes one level more in detail on what Twitter’s misinformation policy includes: “manipulated media, public health (specifically Covid), and civic integrity, election interference and voter suppression.” Senator Cory Gardner (R) notes that this misinformation policy would not tag Holocaust denial tweets.
  • Senator Amy Klobuchar (D) at 1:31:00 through 1:33:00, questioning Mr. Zuckerberg on the political ads on Facebook including aspects of volume, revenue, profits, and automatic placement versus (apparently) scant review (by algorithm or by human).
  • Senator Ted Cruz (R) starts at 1:54:20 with pointed remarks of “the three witnesses we have before this committee today collectively pose, I believe, the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections”, and continues with very sharp questioning of Mr. Dorsey. Lots of great sound-bites and headline worthy quotes from this segment. Battle of the beards!