The CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter struggled on Thursday to beat back lawmakers’ accusations that their platforms harmed children, fomented the riot at the U.S. Capitol and spread manipulative content online.
During a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, Republican and Democratic lawmakers interrogated the tech titans about how their companies endangered children.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican, told the CEOs that their platforms made her fear for children’s lives.
“Do you know what convinced me Big Tech is a destructive force? It’s how you’ve abused your power to manipulate and harm our children,” said Ms. McMorris Rodgers at a hearing on Thursday. “Your platforms are my biggest fear as a parent. I’m a mom of three school-aged kids and my husband and I are fighting the Big Tech battles in our household every day. It’s a battle for their development, a battle for their mental health, and ultimately, a battle for their safety.”
The CEOs disagreed about who should be held accountable. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sought to shift the blame away from social media and onto what he labeled the “political and media environment.”
“Some people say that the problem is that social networks are polarizing us but that’s not at all clear from the evidence or research,” Mr. Zuckerberg told lawmakers. “Polarization was rising in America long before social networks were even invented and it’s falling or stable in many other countries where social networks are popular.”
When Rep. Mike Doyle, Pennsylvania Democrat, asked whether their companies had some responsibility for the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, Mr. Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai refused to directly answer. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, however, accepted some of the blame.
“Yes, but you also have to take into consideration a broader ecosystem,” answered Mr. Dorsey. “It’s not just about the technology platforms that were used.”
The CEOs offered little in the way of recommendations for Congress to use in solving the alleged problems that the lawmakers said the tech companies had enabled. Mr. Pichai said he feared that changes to the tech companies’ legal liability protections contained in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act would diminish Google’s ability to share information.
Mr. Zuckerberg, however, welcomed changes to the law so long as Congress does not scrap the legal protections entirely.
“I think it’s impossible to ask companies to take responsibility for every single piece of content that someone posts, and that I think is the wisdom of 230,” said Mr. Zuckerberg to lawmakers. “At the same time, I do think that we should expect large platforms to have effective systems for being able to handle, broadly speaking, categories of content that are clearly illegal.”
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle appeared more interested in grilling the CEOs for their alleged role in many different crises — including civil rights concerns and the recent immigration surge at America’s southern border — than in discussing policy solutions.
For example, Rep. Buddy Carter, Georgia Republican, pressed Mr. Zuckerberg to address whether human smugglers using Facebook made him complicit in the ongoing immigration crisis, while Rep. Bobby Rush, Illinois Democrat, ripped Mr. Dorsey for not producing a civil rights audit.
To expedite Congress’ legislative process and avoid burdensome regulation, former Google U.S. public policy senior director Adam Kovacevich said he thought the tech CEOs should have told Congress that they were not neutral about the content they host online.
“We’re in a moment of kind of extreme overreactions about tech’s influence: Calls to break up the companies, abolish Section 230, these are kind of extreme reactions,” said Mr. Kovacevich, who also served as a former Democratic Senate aide. “I think once we get past this phase of extreme reactions, I’m hopeful that we can have a more sane conversation about what are sensible rules of the road.”