Big Tech leaders grilled by Congress once again on ‘fake news’

26 Mar 2021

Image: © lazyllama/Stock.adobe.com

The latest hearing with the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter was the first since the January insurrection at the US Capitol.

Leaders at tech giants Google, Facebook and Twitter sat before members of the US Congress once again for a grilling on misinformation and so-called ‘fake news’.

The latest hearing focused on Section 230, the now notorious provision in the Communications Decency Act that largely shields tech platforms in the US from liability for content posted by users.

Section 230 has become a topic of fierce debate in the age of fake news and its real-world effects, and this hearing was the first to take place after January’s insurrection attempt at the US Capitol building in Washington DC.

The session with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey lasted five and a half fours.

When asked if any of them felt in any way responsible for the violence at the Capitol, none gave a clear yes or no answer. However, Dorsey admitted that Twitter may have played a role in the events on 6 January.

Meanwhile, concerns over election misinformation, conspiracy theories around Covid-19 and vaccines, and children’s welfare online were all key topics.

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Zuckerberg has repeatedly come out in favour of reforming – but not repealing – Section 230, though the depth of that reform and the shape it would take is unclear.

“We believe Congress should consider making platforms’ intermediary liability protection for certain types of unlawful content conditional on companies’ ability to meet best practice to combat the spread of this content,” he said.

Zuckerberg said reforms to Section 230 should be dependent on how big or small a platform is, while Dorsey, who heads up the smallest platform of the three in the hearing, expressed scepticism over how exactly that distinction would be made.

Dorsey, when asked about Twitter’s efforts to crack down on misinformation, pointed to its Birdwatch programme where participants help identify and flag misleading or abusive tweets.

For Pichai, the prevalence of misinformation on Google-owned YouTube was of particular interest to lawmakers.

He came out against a repeal of Section 230, saying that it would have “unintended consequences”. It would harm “both free expression and the ability of platforms to take responsible action to protect users in the face of constantly evolving challenges,” he said.

The exchanges between the executives and lawmakers were testy at times. Whether steps towards actual legal changes were made remains to be seen, but Congress isn’t letting up as Democrat representative Jan Schakowsky put it during the hearing: “Self-regulation has come to the end of its road.”

Jonathan Keane is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Dublin

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