with Aaron Schaffer

They’re back. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai are testifying in front of Congress today, again. They’re scheduled to appear at noon in front of the Democrat-led House Energy and Commerce Committee, which says the hearing will be focused on the companies’ role in promoting disinformation and extremism. 

It’s the executives’ first appearance in Congress since their platforms were abused to organize the violent attacks on the Capitol on Jan. 6. And it’s also lawmakers first opportunity to grill them on their decisions to suspend former president Donald Trump, amid concerns that his social media posts would lead to more offline violence. 

Here are the top questions that we have heading into today’s hearing: 

What concrete fixes will Congress demand for the continued threat to disinformation and extremism online?

Now that there have been so many hearings on these issues, the pressure is on lawmakers to move past grandstanding and start discussing concrete steps to regulate the tech industry. 

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce consumer protection panel, called the companies' efforts to address misinformation without government “unacceptable” at an event on Monday.  “We are moving ahead with legislation and with regulation,” she said. "It's happening."

But it still remains unclear exactly which approach they'll take. Frank Pallone Jr., the chairman of the committee hosting the hearing, said he wants to explore changes to Section 230, the decades-old law that shield tech companies from lawsuits over posts, videos and photos that people share on their platforms. But even as lawmakers introduce a flurry of new bills aimed at overhauling the law, he told The Technology 202 he had not yet committed to a specific piece of legislation. He also raised the possibility that lawmakers will seek to better empower the Federal Trade Commission, Silicon Valley’s top watchdog, to protect consumers. 

What proposals might tech CEOs suggest lawmakers adopt? And can they agree?  

Zuckerberg will use his time to make the case that Facebook has become an industry leader in addressing disinformation, touting its fact-checking program and the fact that it now staffs 35,000 people, including contractors who do content moderation, working in safety and security, according to prepared testimony shared with Congress. He will say that he supports updates to Section 230 to “make sure it's working as attended.” He specifically backs ideas to increase transparency and industry collaboration on content moderation. 

Dorsey will make the case that the problems that the committee is trying to tackle today are much bigger than the three tech giants testifying. “Quite simply, a trust deficit has been building over the last several years, and it has created uncertainty — here in the United States and globally,” he'll say. “That deficit does not just impact the companies sitting at the table today but exists across the information ecosystem and, indeed, across many of our institutions.” He'll focus on “algorithmic choice,” the idea that people should have more control over what content is being pushed to them on social networks and ways that Twitter is trying to build that into its products.

Pichai will strongly warn lawmakers against making major changes to Section 230, arguing it is “foundational” to an open web, and that it makes free expression and content moderation online possible. He will propose focusing on building “transparent, fair, and effective processes” for addressing harmful content and behavior. He said that might include developing clearer content policies, notifying people when their content is removed and offering them the opportunity to appeal it, and sharing how systems developed to tackle harmful content are working. 

Will this hearing devolve into a culture war over online speech? 

In past hearings focused on disinformation, lawmakers have been more focused on sparring with each other than the tech CEOs. There’s growing bipartisan interest in addressing tech’s power, but still a wide chasm between the political parties in what’s motivating those worries. 

Democrats on the committee say they're focused on exploring how tech companies are profiting off of extremism and disinformation, especially during the pandemic and election. But Republican lawmakers will likely have a different agenda. As I reported yesterday, several of the politicians who are grilling the CEOs at tomorrow’s hearing tweeted “Stop the Steal” content themselves, or otherwise supported Trump’s efforts to undermine Joe Biden’s victory in the election. 

The committee’s last disinformation hearing, which focused on the role of cable networks in spreading election falsehoods, opened with partisan bickering over whether Democrats on the committee were trampling over Republicans’ rights to free speech. Several of the committee members have baselessly accused the tech companies testifying of censoring Republicans. 

Will lawmakers be able to get real answers from the CEOs?

Social media titans that were once shy to appear in Washington are now seasoned professionals when it comes to testifying in front of lawmakers. This is Zuckerberg’s fourth appearance since July, and Pichai and Dorsey’s third appearances in the same time period. 

Democrats on the committee have been privately talking to advocacy groups researching disinformation and extremism online to prepare for today’s hearing. They plan to focus on a wide range of ways that falsehoods online can cause offline damage, ranging from the riots at the Capitol to vaccine hesitancy during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Our top tabs

A dozen state attorneys general pressed Facebook and Twitter on their plans to limit baseless coronavirus vaccine claims.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong (D) and 11 other Democratic state attorneys general called on Zuckerberg and Dorsey to “take immediate steps” to fully enforce policies against vaccine misinformation, Rachel Lerman and I reported. The letter came as vaccine misinformation is expected to be among the topics lawmakers press executives about at today's hearing.

They also say that falsehoods about the safety of coronavirus vaccines from a small pool of individuals has reached over 59 million followers on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, citing data from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which studies online misinformation and disinformation. 

Facebook spokeswoman Dani Lever said the company has removed 2 million pieces of content containing coronavirus and vaccine misinformation since February from the platform and Instagram, which the company also owns. Lever also said that 167 million pieces of coronavirus-related content have been labeled after being rated false. Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy said that 22,400 coronavirus-related tweets have been taken down since the pandemic began.

Slack is adding new limits to messaging across the platform after concerns of abuse.

The messaging app, which is extensively used by businesses, said that it is taking "immediate steps" to prevent abuse and harassment, Motherboard’s Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reports. The company said it "made a mistake" in the initial roll-out of its tool that will allow users to send messages to people in other organizations, and it will no longer let people to customize messages when they invite them to chat in the new tool, called Slack Connect.

In a statement, Slack vice president of communications and policy Jonathan Prince said that the company received “valuable feedback” from users about potential abuse after it made the announcement, and that the company is “taking immediate steps to prevent this kind of abuse, beginning today with the removal of the ability to customize a message when a user invites someone” through the feature.

A top Republican lawmaker said he would not accept contributions from major tech companies. 

Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, pledged to “hold Big Tech accountable” and not accept campaign contributions from Amazon, Google or Facebook. The move comes as lawmakers including the antitrust panel’s chairman, Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), ready plans to introduce smaller antitrust bills in the coming months, Axios reported

Google and Amazon suspended contributions to members of Congress who voted against the January certification of the electoral college, while Facebook froze all contributions. In a Washington Post op-ed published the day before the Jan. 6 riot, Buck denounced the Republicans’ plans to oppose the certification.

Rant and rave

Amazon worldwide consumer chief Dave Clark’s declared that the e-commerce giant is as progressive as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), eliciting some strong reactions from tech reporters and observers. Sanders will travel to Alabama to meet the company’s workers amid a high-profile unionization drive. Kate Aronoff, a staff writer at The New Republic:

BuzzFeed News' Ryan Mac:

The Hill’s Chris Mills Rodrigo:

CNBC’s Annie Palmer:

Nick Wingfield, a senior editor at The Information:

Inside the industry

Former D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty's venture capital firm raised a $103 million fund.

MaC Venture Capital, a majority Black-owned firm, plans to invest the capital in early-stage businesses in e-commerce, enterprise companies, space and more. The firm's partners also include former William Morris Agency talent agent and operator Michael Palank, and MACRO founder and CEO Charles D. King, the first Black partner at a major Hollywood talent agency.

Trending

Before you log off