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Facebook and Twitter chart out different paths for Congress on internet

It was the second time the CEOs had been summoned to testify in as many months. As expected, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey faced their fair share of allegations by lawmakers of anti-conservative bias and failure to remove misinformation and hate speech. But this hearing lacked much of the grandstanding and attacks of the pre-election hearings.

A broader theme of the hearing was to establish what responsibilities tech companies should have for moderating content, and what role the US government should play — a critical question that will inform a legislative effort on online content next year, once a new Congress is sworn in.

Laying down baseline expectations for the outcome of that effort, leading members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said they did not think it’s appropriate for the US government to get directly involved in online content moderation.

“I am not, nor should we be on this committee, interested in being a member of the speech police,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the panel’s top Democrat.

But Blumenthal indicated that he wants private citizens to be able to sue tech platforms for harms they’ve suffered as a result of the companies’ handling of content, something they can’t do now under Section 230 of the Communications Act, the signature US law that grants tech platforms legal immunity for many of their content decisions.
He Blumenthal and Sen. Lindsey Graham, the committee’s Republican chairman, said changes are likely coming to Section 230, which has been targeted by both US President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden.

“We’ve got to find a way to make sure that when Twitter and Facebook make a decision about what’s reliable and what’s not, what to keep up and what to take down, that there’s transparency in the system,” said Graham. “And I think Section 230 has to be changed, because we can’t get there from here without change.”

The executives and lawmakers spent hours debating, among other things, whether social media platforms are analogous to news publishers or telecommunications companies, the outcome of which could determine what regulatory framework Congress may seek to impose on tech platforms.

Zuckerberg pushed back on the parallels, arguing that social media represents an entirely new sector of the economy that the federal government should hold accountable under a unique model.

“We do have responsibilities, and it may make sense for there to be liability for some of the content that is on the platform,” Zuckerberg said. “But I don’t think the analogies to these other industries … will ever be fully the right way to think about this.”

The tech companies proposed different approaches.

Twitter says it labeled 300,000 tweets around the election
Zuckerberg reiterated his preference for clear rules for the internet. With those rules established, Facebook would lean heavily on its technology to adhere to them. He repeatedly described how Facebook (FB) handles terrorist and child-exploitation content, which is plainly illegal under US law. Much of the content that violates Facebook’s policies is caught by automated algorithms before anyone sees it, Zuckerberg said, and that the company is continually working to improve its algorithms.

Dorsey, by contrast, said federal policy should not depend too heavily on any single set of algorithms to moderate content. Instead, he argued, consumers should be able to choose among many algorithms — or even to opt out of having content decisions made algorithmically altogether. He warned against any approach that could risk “entrenching” the dominance of large, heavily resourced social media platforms that could comply with and enforce them, in what may have been a jab at Facebook.

“As we look forward,” Dorsey said, “we have more and more of our decisions, of our operations, moving to…

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