Lawmakers essentially treated the hearing like a virtual campaign rally.
Senators barely touched on Section 230, despite the fact that the hearing was purportedly called to discuss updates to the decades-old Internet law that shields tech companies from liability.
The nearly four-hour event was chaotic and disjointed from the outset, as lawmakers frequently jumped from hot-button issue to issue — from the Twitter's’ handling of dictators’ accounts to Google and Facebook's effect on local news.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) followed through on his promise of holding a fiery showdown with Dorsey over the rare steps the company took to limit the spread of New York Post articles about alleged emails belonging to Hunter Biden, which the Washington Post has not independently verified. He raised his voice and aggressively questioned the Twitter CEO, pressing Dorsey on whether he was tipping the scales in favor of Democrats. But Cruz was ultimately unable to frazzle Dorsey, who kept a relatively calm demeanor said the company was not silencing political views, but acknowledged the company had more work to do to build trust among Republican lawmakers.
Lawmakers missed a key opportunity to press the executives on some of the most urgent topics in tech:
The lawmakers didn't ask the chief executives for specific recommendations on how to reform Section 230.
Calling for changes or an outright revocation of Section 230 is in vogue in Washington. As the hearing was taking place, President Trump was reiterating his calls on Twitter to revoke the law.
Zuckerberg notably said in his opening statements that he believed Congress should update Section 230. It’s a shift on a major issue that the tech industry has fought for years to avoid.
But senators gleaned few specifics from Zuckerberg about how they should actually reform the legislation, even as there's little to no consensus right now on Capitol Hill about how to actually reform or replace the law.
In one exchange, he suggested that Congress should hold companies account based on the number of people who see a piece of harmful content. “You can hold us accountable for how nimble we are,” Zuckerberg told Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.).
Dorsey in his opening remarks proposed three interesting ways to address lawmakers’ concerns with content moderation, which he said could potentially be achieved through reforms to Section 230, new legislation or industry-wide adoption. He called for more transparency around the companies’ moderation practices, as well as requiring companies to create an appeals process through which people can challenge decisions they make about removing or otherwise restricting posts. He also proposed giving users the ability to select which algorithms determine how posts appear in their feeds. Twitter already does this to an extent by giving its users the choice of viewing their news feed chronologically rather than the top posts the company predicts they would be most interested in seeing. Yet lawmakers largely passed on the chance to follow up.
YouTube faced almost no scrutiny.
Alphabet’s Pichai received the least questions by far of any of the CEOs present. And there was very little focus on subsidiary YouTube, which is by far the most popular video-streaming service.
Instead, Dorsey received far more scrutiny, even though studies show use of his service is far less widespread. About 73 percent of American adults say they use YouTube, which is much more than the 22 percent or so who say they use Twitter, according to data compiled by Pew Research Center last year.
YouTube is also a critical news source for many Americans. About a quarter of all U.S. adults say hey get their news on YouTube, according to a study Pew released last month.
YouTube also faces many of the same risks as Facebook and Twitter, and experts say it has been a font of misinformation and conspiracy theories, especially those linked to QAnon.
Specifics about antitrust action hardly came up.
While there is an unprecedented flurry of antitrust scrutiny in Washington right now, the senators said little about how they think existing antitrust law should be addressed to address tech's size and power. They did not spend much time pressing the companies on recent evidence that has emerged of alleged anticompetitive behavior in the more than year-long House antitrust investigation or the Justice Department's recent suit against Google. State and federal regulators are expected to file an antitrust charges against Facebook as early as November but you wouldn't have known it from the hearing.
One of the rare exchanges on the topic involved Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who called Google’s response to a major antitrust lawsuit “offensive” and “defiant.” Google pushed back on the suit’s allegations by insisting its services are beneficial for users and faces steep competition.
Pichai repeated those points Wednesday at the Senate hearing. “We see robust competition in many categories,” he said. Klobuchar then called for changes to competition policy in the country but did not get specific.
There weren't tough questions on election interference.
For almost four years, the tech companies have been investing heavily in content moderation, updating their policies and building new partnerships in order to avoid a repeat of the interference on their platforms in the 2016 election. With millions of Americans casting their votes early, it's go time on those efforts.
Having the three CEOs side-by-side at yesterday's hearing could have given lawmakers an opportunity to delve into specific policies and incidents at each company, and press them on how their confusing and constantly-changing policies compare to one another.
Yet yesterday's hearing brought little new clarity to how the companies plan to address threats to their services – both foreign and domestic. Lawmakers asked very general questions, and mostly required the companies to reiterate public promises they had already made. All three executives warned lawmakers they see continued foreign interference attempts ahead of the election, primarily from Russia and other adversaries following its playbook, including China and Iran. The attempts that the CEOs outlined have previously been reported.
“It’s an area where we would need strong cooperation with government agencies moving forward,” Pichai said.
Rant and rave
Jack Dorsey’s beard stole the show at the hearing. … What secrets are hidden within?
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QAnon continues to flood websites and social media apps even after Big Tech cracks down.
Accounts touting the conspiracy theory remain active on Twitter in key states, including Florida and Texas, Craig Timberg and Isaac Stanley-Becker report. One out of every 25 tweets on the election from those states comes from an account affiliated with the conspiracy theory, data from the research group Advance Democracy found.
Adherents of the conspiracy theory, especially those based internationally, have also found safe harbor in the encrypted messaging platform Telegram, according to the Search International Terrorist Entities Intelligence Group (SITE), which researches extremism. Telegram has not announced enforcement against QAnon and did not respond to a request for comment.
Amazon and eBay also host thousands of individual QAnon products and books, according to an analysis of the Althea Group. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“Fortunately, mainstream social media companies are now aggressively moving to keep QAnon off their platforms,” said Rita Katz, the executive director of SITE. “But it will require more than just well-known companies to mitigate QAnon’s threat. QAnon already has a wealth of options — if not an entire infrastructure — to fall back on.”
Google staffer Miles Taylor came out as ‘Anonymous,’ the author of a scathing 2018 op-ed and book about Trump.
Taylor, who has since come out against the administration publicly and endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, caused a splash with the anonymous 2018 op-ed and tell-all book that criticized the president as unstable, Colby Itkowitz and Josh Dawsey report. He previously served as chief of staff in the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security.
Taylor is currently on leave from his policy job at Google. His work assisting then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen with talking points about the agency’s family separation policy previously sparked a backlash among employees, BuzzFeed News reported.
In a Medium post revealing his identity, Taylor asserted that his criticisms of Trump were “widely held among officials at the highest levels of the federal government.”
The White House disputed Taylor’s claims.
“This low-level, disgruntled former staffer is a liar and a coward who chose anonymity over action and leaking over leading,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement. “He was ineffective and incompetent during his time as DHS Chief of Staff which is why he was promptly fired after only serving in this role for a matter of weeks.”
A court rejected a complaint by Uber drivers against the company’s anti-labor-law messaging in the app.
A judge said the plaintiffs failed to show that any drivers were punished for not cooperating with the campaign for Prop 22, a ballot initiative that would exempt ride-share drivers from a labor law reclassifying some contractors as employees, Faiz Siddiqui and Reed Albergotti report. He also cited the plaintiffs’ decision to wait months after Uber began pushing the messages to ask for a court order to stop the messages.
The judge did not take a position on the drivers’ complaint that Uber was using invalid survey data to promote the position that the majority of drivers supported the proposition. Uber stopped polling drivers on the initiative a day after the suit was filed.
“On November 3, Californians will vote Proposition 22 up or down, Uber’s campaign will of necessity end and thus any [restraining order] enjoining Prop 22 campaigning would effectively be moot,” Judge Richard B. Ulmer wrote.
Uber pledged in court that it would not retaliate against drivers who do not support the ballot initiative.
Drivers also sought up to $260 million in penalties from the company over allegations it violated employment rights.
Inside the industry
Spotify will not ban Alex Jones as a guest on other podcasts.
The platform banned Jones’s podcast in 2018 for hate speech but will allow the conspiracy theorist to appear on its recently acquired podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” Jane Lytvynenko at BuzzFeed News reports.
On one episode, Jones repeated false claims about the Biden family and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic.
The company defended the decision to employees in an internal email.
“If a team member has concerns about any piece of content on our platform, you should encourage them to report it to Trust & Safety because they are the experts on our team charged with reviewing content,” Horacio Gutierrez, the company’s chief legal officer and head of global affairs, wrote in an email obtained by BuzzFeed News. “However, it’s important that they aren’t simply flagging a piece of content just because of something they’ve read online. It’s all too common that things are taken out of context.”
Jones has also been banned from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Germany’s antitrust authority will investigate Amazon.
The watchdog will investigate whether Amazon’s ban against third-parties selling certain brands on its e-commerce platform violates the law, Reuters reports. Germany is Amazon’s second-biggest market after the United States. Amazon says it is cooperating with the investigation.
More antitrust news:
- Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter and Spotify release earnings today.