A Senate committee is asking the CEOs of Google, Facebook and Twitter to testify on Section 230, a 24-year-old liability shield that tech companies claim is essential to keeping social media companies alive but President Trump and many Democrats alike have criticized for varying — and often contradictory — reasons.
The Senate Commerce Committee voted unanimously to approve subpoenas for the three companies’ leaders Thursday, but the subpoenas will not be issued if the CEOs agree to testify voluntarily, a committee spokesperson said.
Republicans and Democrats on the committee are looking for tech leaders to testify on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, though some of the committee’s Democrats are largely focused on antitrust and privacy issues, CNBC reported.
Section 230, passed in 1996, says operators of “interactive computer services” like social media sites are not considered publishers, meaning they usually aren’t legally liable for most types of content posted by their users.
Supporters say this law gives social media companies like Facebook and Google the legal flexibility they need to host user-generated content on their sites, and it allows them to moderate content without fearing lawsuits.
Some opponents say this liability shield is too broad, arguing it protects large tech companies from the consequences of their moderating practices, though lawmakers disagree over whether social media outlets should moderate more or less aggressively.
Twitter, Facebook and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Lawmakers from both parties have called for reforms to Section 230, but their common ground largely stops there. Trump and several congressional Republicans claim social media companies’ moderating practices are unfair to conservatives, an allegation fueled partly by Twitter’s efforts to check misinformation by Trump. Some Democrats, meanwhile, say social media companies should be held responsible for misinformation on their platforms, meaning more extensive content moderation. Members of both parties have proposed taking away legal immunity for egregious content like child sexual abuse, but that proposal has also drawn critics who warn it could be too broad. The most recent change to Section 230 was in 2018, when Trump signed a law that took away liability protections for sex trafficking-related content.
Not every lawmaker supports changing Section 230. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, one of the law’s authors, has argued Section 230 protects free expression and allows smaller tech companies with fewer resources to compete. “If you unravel 230, then you harm the opportunity for diverse voices, diverse platforms, and, particularly, the little guy to have a chance to get off the ground,” he told Vox last year.
A group of tech CEOs last testified before Congress in July, but lawmakers focused on antitrust concerns. They grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, among others, about allegations of anticompetitive behavior.