Senate Judiciary authorizes subpoenas for Facebook, Twitter chiefs

Chairman Graham says he moved forward despite request by Democrats to delay voting

Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks Thursday to the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks Thursday to the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 22, 2020 at 2:53pm

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee continued on Thursday to push for a hearing with the chief executives of Facebook and Twitter before the Nov. 3 presidential election, authorizing subpoenas to both companies for testimony related to their handling of the New York Post's Hunter Biden story.

The committee agreed, 12-0, to allow Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to subpoena Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, and Jack Dorsey, the head of Twitter, over the silent objections of Democrats who were not present because they were boycotting a separate vote to advance to the Senate floor the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court.

Graham said Democrats on the committee had asked him to delay voting on the subpoena authorization but that he decided to move forward because of bipartisan interest in Zuckerberg and Dorsey.

A representative for Facebook declined to comment. A representative for Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Graham said he hoped the authorization of subpoenas would give the committee "leverage" to secure voluntary testimony from Zuckerberg and Dorsey.

Both men are already scheduled to appear before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Oct. 28, less than a week before the election. The Commerce committee had unanimously backed similar subpoenas, after which Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai all agreed to testify voluntarily.

But GOP Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, both members of the Judiciary Committee, were quick to call for a hearing separate from the Commerce committee after Facebook and Twitter limited the spread of the Post's story on Biden and his father, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, which made dubious claims questioned by fact-checkers and other news outlets.

Hawley and Cruz were among a slew of Republicans who said Twitter's decision to block users from sharing the story and Facebook's decision to limit its distribution while it was reviewed by the platform's third-party fact-checkers was further proof of anti-conservative bias, a common complaint that has spurred calls for the repeal of a 1996 law that shields Facebook and Twitter from lawsuits.

That law, commonly known as Section 230, is likely to be a hot topic at the Commerce hearing and the Judiciary hearing, if it happens. Section 230 protects online companies from most lawsuits related to how they moderate third-party content, like the New York Post story, on their sites, and is credited with fostering the meteoric rise of Silicon Valley in the 21st century.

But with heightened scrutiny in recent years of the power amassed by Facebook, Twitter and other technology companies has come bipartisan interest in changing — or, in President Donald Trump's case, repealing — Section 230.

Graham, the Judiciary chairman, is co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee's top Democrat, that would require online platforms to earn their Section 230 privileges through content moderation. Another bipartisan bill has the backing of Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

But despite their interest in regulating technology companies and questioning their chief executives, Democrats have urged their Republican colleagues to delay hearings with Zuckerberg and Dorsey until after the election in order to avoid attempts by either side to influence their content moderation decisions.

Republicans say hearings beforehand are key to probing how they will moderate content in the days or weeks after polls close, when mail-in votes are still being counted and results may be unclear.