Technology

The frustration shows when Congress grills social media CEOs again

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Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, testifies during a video hearing held by subcommittees of the US House of Representatives’ Energy and Trade Committee on “The Role of Social Media in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation” on March 25, 2021 in Washington .

US House of Representatives Energy and Trade | Handout | via Reuters

In a five and a half hour misinformation hearing on Thursday, lawmakers faced the CEOs of three of the most influential technology platforms.

The main legislative focus of the discussion was on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the legal shield that protects platforms from liability for the contributions of their users and allows them to moderate content as they see fit. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were the three witnesses in front of two subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at the joint hearing.

At some points the exchange took on a tense tone. During the hearing, lawmakers tried several times to save their time by asking “yes or no” questions, to which CEOs consistently responded in full sentences. Dorsey sent a tweet during the testimony that seemed to mock the nature of the poll: a poll where users could simply choose either “yes” or “no”.

“Your multitasking skills are pretty impressive,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice, DN.Y., after asking him which answer won.

There were still a few moments when the legislature got out of step. Several lawmakers mispronounced Pichai’s name and one mispronounced the Zuckerbergs as “Zuckerman”. A lawmaker initially confused Zuckerberg by asking about his family’s use of YouTube, a Google-owned service. When Zuckerberg made it clear that this was really the question, it was reminiscent of the infamous moment when he had to explain to a senator how Facebook makes money selling ads.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies during a video hearing held by subcommittees of the US House of Representatives’ Energy and Trade Committee on “The Role of Social Media in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation” on March 25, 2021 in Washington .

US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Trade Handout | via Reuters

Still, lawmakers seemed itchy to hold key technology platforms accountable, and many are eager to do so through reforms of Section 230.

This prospect worries many tech advocates, including groups who frequently criticize the major platforms.

They fear that the Section 230 protection restrictions will hurt the smallest of gamers by making it harder to fight lawsuits, while well-resourced tech companies will be able to pay the bill. Evan Greer, director of the progressive digital rights group Fight for the Future, said at a pre-hearing Thursday event that the use of Section 230 as a lever to incentivize behavior “is inherently a monopoly maker”.

Some lawmakers have been skeptical about Zuckerberg’s stated willingness to implement some reforms in Section 230, although the CEO stressed at Thursday’s hearing that greater accountability should only be on the largest platforms. Dorsey, who represented the smallest company on the stand on Thursday, expressed concern that it would be difficult to distinguish between a small and a large platform for the purposes of such legislation.

What about the kids?

Child protection was a major issue in the Republican poll Thursday, suggesting how the two sides could come together to adopt change.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., The senior member of the full committee, set the tone in her opening addresses.

“I have two daughters and a son with a disability. Let me be clear,” she said in her written comments. “I don’t want you to define what applies to them. I don’t want their future to be manipulated by your algorithms.”

McMorris Rodgers and several other Republicans spoke about the psychological effects of social media on children and how their safety on the platforms could be compromised. Some lawmakers asked Zuckerberg about an Instagram for Kids service that his company was researching for children under the age of 13 who would otherwise not be eligible for Facebook’s services. Zuckerberg said the project is in its early stages, but part of the goal is to provide children with an alternative platform to sign up on so they don’t lie about their age in order to get access to regular service.

Some Democrats also showed interest in the subject. Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., Squeezed CEOs on features of their child-facing services that she suggested could be harmful, like endless scrolling, referrals, and unnatural face filters. She also said it was not enough to oblige parents to put controls on their children.

“The last thing an overworked parent needs right now, especially now, is more complex tasks like parental controls,” she said. “You need a child-centered design by default.”

Sundar Pichai, testifies to Google at the Congressional hearing on March 25, 2021.

CNBC

There were other, more divisive issues as well. Some Republicans re-emerged that the platforms are systematically censoring conservative voices, which CEOs have all denied, and Democrats tried to evaluate the platforms’ role in the January 6th uprising in the U.S. Capitol.

At the end of the hearing it was still unclear whether the legislature had come any closer to adopting a substantial reform. But the sense of urgency among the members was palpable.

As Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Told the CEOs at the beginning of the hearing: “Self-regulation has come to the end of its path.”

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WATCH: The big, chaotic business of moderating content on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube

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Katherine Clark