Thursday morning, the Senate Commerce committee voted unanimously to issue subpoenas to the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter — a significant escalation in Congress’s ongoing efforts to reexamine the liability protections of Section 230. The three CEOs will now be ordered to appear before the committee at a date still to be scheduled.
The hearing comes as the committee considers a new bill from Sen. Lindsay Graham, intended to limit the scope of “Good Samaritan” moderation that receives legal protections under Section 230. But the senators’ concerns reached far beyond 230, with different members also raising questions about privacy protections and broader antitrust issues.
What is Section 230?
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was passed in 1996, says an “interactive computer service” can’t be treated as the publisher or speaker of third-party content. This protects websites from lawsuits if a user posts something illegal, although there are exceptions for pirated and prostitution-related material.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Chris Cox (R-CA) crafted Section 230 so website owners could moderate sites without worrying about legal liability. The law is particularly vital for social media networks, but it covers many sites and services, including news outlets with comment sections — like The Verge. The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls it “the most important law protecting internet speech.”
“Big Tech, I believe, poses the single greatest threat to free speech in our day, and the single greatest threat to democracy in our day,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) told the committee. “It should speak volumes that every member of our committee just voted to issue these subpoenas.”
A number of tech regulations have stalled out during this congressional session, ranging from privacy measures like the Browser Act to more recent bills to add an ambiguous “good faith” requirement to Section 230. Most recently, lawmakers attempted a bipartisan compromise in the PACT Act, which aims to address concerns of market power and ideological moderation bias in a single measure. But with only weeks to go before the national election, none of the bills are likely to proceed in this Congress.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) voiced frustration over the failures of those bills, and over how little legislation has resulted from the lively hearings of the past few years.
“I don’t want us to be the Senate of all words and no action,” said Klobuchar. “Because that is what we have come to.”