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Congressional leaders grill tech CEOs over misinformation

Spiky exchanges between lawmakers and tech leaders leave few satisfied

Big tech leaders faced Congressional lawmakers Thursday in a hearing about misinformation on their sites. After heated discussions, lawmakers got few direct answers and were left unsatisfied.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Google's Sundar Pichai, and Twitter's Jack Dorsey answered House representatives’ questions at the hearing, held by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. It was a testy session, which Committee chair Frank Pallone opened by arguing the three companies had done little to curb misinformation online.

The Committee members consistently asked for simple “yes or no” answers during the hearing in an apparent attempt to rein in answers from the CEOs and get more direct responses. They repeatedly challenged the tech executives when they tried to expand. 

At one point, Rep. Billy Long asked them pointedly, "Just tell me if you know the difference between these two words: 'yes' and 'no,'" forcing each to answer. "This is a nuanced topic," Zuckerberg explained at one point before asking for space to expand.

Neither Zuckerberg nor PinPichaichai directly answered whether their platforms bore responsibility for the misinformation that helped to spark the riot. Dorsey answered "yes.”

The hearing also covered Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms from liability for their users’ posts. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Chair of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, cut off Zuckerberg halfway through his answer to her question about whether Section 230 should be considered when creating trade agreements.

"My primary goal would be to help update Section 230 to reflect the modern reality and what we've learned over 25 years. I do think that it plays a foundational role in the Internet," he said before Schakowsky stopped him and turned to the other CEOs.

Addressing Section 230 in a later answer, Zuckerberg said he was committed to reforming it. "230 broadly is important so I wouldn't repeal the whole thing," he said. Zuckerberg advocated for three changes to the law’s implementation. Firstly, he called for platforms to report how much harmful content they find. Second, he said platforms should be held accountable for their material. Finally, he warned that while these policies need to apply to large platforms, they should exclude smaller ones.

The hearing came one day after 12 state attorneys wrote to Dorsey and Zuckerberg urging them to do more to prevent misinformation over COVID-19 vaccination. 

"The people and groups spreading falsehoods and misleading Americans about the safety of coronavirus vaccines are threatening the health of our communities, slowing progress in getting our residents protected from the virus, and undermining economic recovery in our states," Dorsey and Zuckerberg warned, adding that anti-vaxxer accounts on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter reach over 59 million followers.

"Twitter and Facebook have yet to remove from all their platforms the accounts of prominent 'anti-vaxxers' who have repeatedly violated the companies’ terms of service," the letter added.

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