The Senate Commerce Committee has voted unanimously to subpoena the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter. The members plan to compel Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Jack Dorsey to testify about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. That provision grants a high degree of liability protection to websites and online services from what their users post.
The committee’s ranking Democrat member, Senator Maria Cantwell, opposed the subpoena at first. She relented after Republican members added points about privacy and alleged “media domination” to the subpoena, according to CNBC. However, Cantwell expressed concern about a potential “chilling effect” on those battling hate speech and COVID-19 misinformation.
Senate Republicans are amplifying their scrutiny of social media companies, reportedly at the behest of the White House, ahead of November’s presidential election. Politico notes that today’s markup of a bill that addresses alleged anti-conservative bias on social media also targets the Section 230 provision.
President Donald Trump took umbrage with Twitter and Facebook applying warning labels to posts of his that contained misinformation about voting and COVID-19. Soon after Twitter slapped a fact-checking label on his tweets for the first time over false information about mail-in voting, he signed an executive order that targeted Section 230 protections. The Department of Justice has also asked Congress to modify the provision.
This is not an entirely partisan issue, however. Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden has also criticized Section 230. He claimed during the primary season that the provision “immediately should be revoked,” and he plans to do just that if he wins the presidency next month. Meanwhile, his campaign this week accused Facebook of failing to prevent the spread of election misinformation.
Congress has been training its crosshairs more tightly on big tech companies in recent months. Pichai and Zuckerberg, along with Apple and Amazon CEOs Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook, testified at an antitrust hearing this summer. The Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission are reportedly preparing antitrust lawsuits against Google and Facebook respectively.