In a Senate hearing on Tuesday that stretched on for more than four hours, the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter sought to recalibrate their relationship with Congress, apologizing for past mistakes while trying to set the tone for future regulation of their industry that's expected to see a bigger push in 2021.
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.
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 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 algorithms which have a difficult time explaining why they make decisions, bringing transparency around those decisions. And that is why we believe that we should have more choice in how these algorithms are applied to our content, whether we use them at all, so we can turn them on and off — and have clarity around the outcomes that they are projecting and how they affect our experience."
Some Republicans on the committee continued to lash out at the tech executives for perceived anti-conservative bias — often pointing to the same incidents repeatedly, even when those decisions had been reversed — while some Democrats criticized the companies' handling of hateful rhetoric.
Dorsey again apologized for the way Twitter handled a viral article by the New York Post containing unproven allegations about Hunter Biden, saying it was a "mistake" to restrict sharing of the article and that Twitter has since updated its policies.
Zuckerberg, meanwhile, also acknowledged a misstep in how Facebook handled a page on its platform that urged armed counter-protesters to gather in response to racial equity protests in Kenosha, Wisc. Two people were killed at the protests.
But as Congress turns its eye to legislating, the online content debate is likely to shift from tech companies' responses to individual incidents to the job that lawmakers were sent to Washington to perform.
"I fully expect Congress is going to act," said Sen. Thom Tillis. "In the next Congress, we're going to produce an outcome."