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Wicker: Time to end free pass for powerful tech companies

This past week, I convened the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google for an important hearing addressing censorship and political bias on their platforms. These companies control the vast flow of news and information online and have faced growing criticism for restricting conservative voices and the free spread of information.

The hearing, which I chaired in the Senate Commerce Committee, gave senators the opportunity to challenge these executives on their “content moderation” practices and discuss what reforms are needed to bring accountability to this powerful industry.

Much of our discussion centered on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which Congress passed in 1996. Section 230 protects online platforms from liability in removing content they find objectionable. These protections have been pivotal in shielding tech companies from potentially ruinous lawsuits and promoting the growth of the internet. But they have also given Big Tech free rein to censor content as they see fit without facing consequences for their actions.

Their decision-making processes remain largely hidden, and users have few options when they are censored or restricted.

Big tech’s double standard

During the hearing, I pressed the witnesses for answers about the recent suppression of a news story involving Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

On Oct. 15, the New York Post published a story that included damaging allegations against the former Vice President, who is now the Democrat nominee for President. Almost immediately after publication, Facebook and Twitter took steps to block or limit access to the story. Facebook suppressed the story’s distribution pending a third-party fact check. Twitter went further and blocked all users from sharing the content. It even locked the Post’s account, claiming the story included “hacked materials” and was “potentially harmful.”

The CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, admitted in our hearing that his company had made a mistake. Both he and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said they have no evidence that the story came from Russian disinformation. Even so, the Post’s Twitter account remained locked when we held the hearing almost two weeks after the fact.

It is worth noting that Twitter and Facebook have not been consistent in censoring illegally obtained materials. For example, when the President’s tax returns were leaked without his permission in September, neither company acted to restrict access to the information. Similarly, social media companies have allowed the now-discredited Steele dossier to be shared widely without fact-checking or disclaimers. And Twitter routinely allows foreign dictators, such as Iran’s Ayatollah, to post anti-Semitic and threatening tweets, which Mr. Dorsey dismissed as mere “saber rattling.”

This double standard would be appalling under normal circumstances, but selectively censoring the New York Post story during an election cycle is beyond the pale. It is no wonder many conservatives accuse tech companies of hypocrisy and election interference.

Time to reform Section 230

In the 24 years since Congress passed Section 230, tech companies have become enormously powerful. I am concerned they have become unchecked referees determining what is true and what information Americans can access. The time is ripe to revisit Section 230.

With this goal in mind, I recently introduced the Online Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Act to clarify Section 230 and make the law less prone to abuse. This legislation would place a check on powerful tech giants while still preserving the core aspects of Section 230 that have allowed the tech industry to thrive and innovate. Congress needs to strike a reasonable balance, but it is clear that tech companies should no longer receive a free pass for acts of political bias.

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