Congress grills tech CEOs: Key moments from the Senate hearing

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Sen. Marsha Blackburn used a Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday to ask about the employment status of a Google engineer whose criticism of the Tennessee Republican has become fodder for right-wing media outlets over the past two years.

Blackburn (R-Tenn.) asked CEO Sundar Pichai whether Blake Lemoine, a senior software engineer and artificial intelligence researcher, still has a job at Google.

“He has had very unkind things to say about me and I was just wondering if you all had still kept him working there,” Blackburn said during the hearing, where she and other GOP lawmakers accused tech companies of squelching free speech.

Pichai said he did not know Lemoine’s employment status.

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Sen. Ted Cruz speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Sen. Ted Cruz teed off on Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Wednesday over the platform’s decision to temporarily block an unproven New York Post report about former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter — a move that has further stoked conservatives’ claims of bias.

In a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the tech industry’s prized liability protections, Cruz accused Twitter of forcing users, including media outlets like the Post, to “genuflect and obey your dictates if they wish to communicate with the American people.”

Raising his voice, the Texas Republican dismissed the much more soft-spoken CEO’s attempts to justify the company’s enforcement of policies against hacked and false material, calling Dorsey’s rationale “dubious.”

“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 asked Dorsey, asserting that Twitter was functioning as “a Democratic super PAC.”

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Live Updates: Tech CEO Senate Hearing

“Have you done anything to get it passed? Because we’re at a roadblock on it,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

10/28/2020 11:51 AM EDT

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota accused her Republican colleagues of calling a hearing with high-profile tech executives to politicize concerns about misinformation and election interference ahead of next week’s election — and asked why her own tech legislation has stalled in the Senate.

“I want to note first that this hearing comes six days before Election Day and, I believe, we’re politicizing and the Republican majority is politicizing what should actually not be a partisan topic,” she said Wednesday.

The former Democratic presidential candidate then lamented that legislation she has introduced to increase online political advertising transparency and bolster election security have languished without broader support from Republicans or the White House.

Her Honest Ads Act has failed to gain momentum, Klobuchar noted during her questioning of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, asking whether his company has spent money lobbying to change or block the bill.

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Dems press Zuckerberg on Facebook’s handling of extremist content

Democratic Sen. Gary Peters pressed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing Wednesday on whether the company has a “responsibility” to do more to steer its users away from violent extremist groups on its platforms.

The Michigan lawmaker praised Facebook for assisting authorities in helping to disrupt a recent plot to kidnap the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, that was planned in part on its sites. But Peters suggested the company could still do more to prevent its users from becoming radicalized and engaging with violent extremist groups, like the suspected Whitmer kidnappers.

Peters noted at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing that a new Facebook plan to redirect users who search for some extremist content toward authoritative sources seemingly doesn’t apply to “budding violent extremists.”

“Do you believe that your platform has a responsibility to off-ramp users who are on the path to radicalization by violent extremist groups?” Peters said.

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Live Updates: Tech CEO Senate Hearing

“Speech against our own people or a country’s own citizens we believe is different and can cause more immediate harm,” Jack Dorsey added.

10/28/2020 11:39 AM EDT

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Wednesday defended the company’s decision to leave up tweets from Iran’s leader threatening armed attacks against Israel while putting fact-checking and violence labels on tweets from President Donald Trump.

“We did not find those to violate our terms of service because we considered them ‘saber ratting,’ which is part of the speech of world leaders in concert with other countries,” Dorsey told Senate Commerce Chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who had asked about the tweets from Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“Speech against our own people or a country’s own citizens we believe is different and can cause more immediate harm,” Dorsey added during Wednesday’s hearing with other tech CEOs.

The Iranian tweets in question included one from May in which Khamenei described the state of Israel as “a deadly, cancerous growth,” and another in which he wrote: “We will support and assist any nation or any group anywhere who opposes and fights the Zionist regime, and we do not hesitate to say this.”

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Tuesday’s hearing was interrupted briefly when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was unable to connect with the Commerce Committee via video feed.

Senate Judiciary Chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) informed the rest of the committee of the technical glitch after the opening statements of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Wicker said the committee would go into a five-minute recess to allow Zuckerberg, who was alone, and Facebook staff to connect to the hearing, but the chief executive was able to be patched in after a few minutes.

Sen. Maria Cantwell warned in her opening remarks at the hearing that the integrity and security of the U.S. election remain under attack.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) used her opening remarks to shift attention away from Republican accusations of anti-conservative bias, and back to issues that have been more pressing to Democrats: how tech companies handle election misinformation and their impact on local news.

In doing so, the Senate Commerce Committee’s top Democrat tried to set an agenda that was markedly different from that of Chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and illustrated how Twitter, Google and Facebook find themselves entrenched in a deeply partisan political fight.

“What I do not want today’s hearing to be is a chilling effect on the very important aspects of making sure that hate speech or misinformation related to health and public safety are allowed to remain on the internet,” Cantwell said.

She then resurrected the ghosts of the 2016 presidential election, when Russian trolls used hacked emails and online disinformation to sow discord among voters. Cantwell warned that the integrity and security of the U.S. election remain under attack — from both foreign adversaries and domestic political actors.

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The top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee issued an early warning to the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter at a congressional hearing Wednesday, saying that it’s time to end the industry’s “free pass” to “control, stifle and even censor content” from users however they see fit.

Delivering opening remarks at a highly-anticipated hearing on the tech industry’s prized legal liability protections, Senate Commerce Chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) railed against the tech companies over allegations they are biased against conservatives. And he raised the specter of weakening those protections, afforded under a 1996 law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That law shields online companies from lawsuits for hosting and policing user posts.

“This liability shield has been pivotal in protecting online platforms from endless and potentially ruinous lawsuits,” Wicker said. “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.”

Wicker, whose panel threatened to issue subpoenas to the CEOs if they did not testify before the committee, took particular issue with Facebook and Twitter for limiting the distribution of disputed New York Post articles alleging direct ties between Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s business interests.

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Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) speaks during a media availability. | Alex Brandon/ AP Photo

Live Updates: Tech CEO Senate Hearing

“What is happening here is a disgrace,” Sen. Brian Schatz plans to say, foregoing questions in what he considers a sham hearing.

10/28/2020 09:37 AM EDT

A top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee plans to plead with the CEOs of Google, Facebook and Twitter to “stand up to this immoral behavior” of the Republicans for hauling them in for Wednesday’s hearing on alleged censorship so soon before the Nov. 3 election.

“What is happening here is a disgrace,” Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, the top Democrat on the telecom subcommittee, will say, according to prepared remarks. “It is a scar on the Committee, and it is a scar on the United States Senate.”

“What we are seeing today is United States senators attempting to bully the CEOs of private companies into carrying out a hit job on a presidential candidate by making sure they push out foreign and domestic misinformation meant to influence the election,” he will add.

The Democratic lawmaker will forgo asking tech CEOs questions given what he calls a “disgrace” and “sham” of a proceeding.

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In this Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives for a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

In this Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives for a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. | AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File

Technology

Wednesday’s hearing comes as lawmakers examine a 1996 statute known as Section 230.

Three of Silicon Valley’s most influential chief executives find themselves at odds as lawmakers weigh measures to curb Silicon Valley’s liability protections.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is calling on Congress to “update” a crucial legal shield for the online industry, while Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey says lawmakers should show “restraint” in changing the rules, according to the executives’ written testimony for a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday, obtained by POLITICO on Tuesday. Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who’s also scheduled to testify, likewise encouraged caution.

The remarks show fresh daylight between three of the tech industry’s most recognizable leaders on a liability law that politicians of both parties want to pare back or revoke — efforts that Silicon Valley’s lobbying groups have mostly opposed.

Tech CEOs in the hot seat: Wednesday’s hearing comes as lawmakers examine a 1996 statute known as Section 230, which shields online companies from lawsuits for hosting, taking down or otherwise moderating user content.

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