Facebook endorses Section 230 changes ahead of Senate hearing

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg offers few specifics but parts ways with his colleagues from Google and Twitter

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified via video conference during a July hearing on antitrust before the House Judiciary Committee. (Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified via video conference during a July hearing on antitrust before the House Judiciary Committee. (Getty Images)
Posted October 28, 2020 at 10:52am

Facebook supports changes to an embattled 1996 law that protects social media and other technology companies from lawsuits relating to third-party content on their platforms, the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, will tell a Senate panel on Wednesday.

The surprise announcement from Zuckerberg, who is scheduled to testify before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee alongside Sundar Pichai, the head of Google, and Jack Dorsey, the head of Twitter, separates Facebook from other giants in the technology sector who favor preserving the 1996 law, known as Section 230.

Section 230, considered the key to Silicon Valley’s meteoric rise in the last two decades, has come under bipartisan scrutiny since the 2016 presidential election. Lawmakers, federal regulators and the Trump administration have all questioned whether technology companies, particularly social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, have amassed too much power over online speech.

“Section 230 made it possible for every major internet service to be built and ensured important values like free expression and openness were part of how platforms operate,” Zuckerberg will tell the committee, according to his prepared testimony. “Changing it is a significant decision. However, I believe Congress should update the law to make sure it’s working as intended.”

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Zuckerberg said Facebook supports “the ideas around transparency and industry collaboration that are being discussed in some of the current bipartisan proposals” and urged Congress “to make sure that any changes do not have unintended consequences that stifle expression or impede innovation.”

Pichai and Dorsey will not endorse changing Section 230, according to their testimony, although Dorsey will suggest requiring “the publication of moderation processes and practices [and] a straightforward process to appeal decisions.”

Two bipartisan proposals to change Section 230 have gained traction in recent months. The first, sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee members John Thune, R-S.D., who is also the Senate majority whip, and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, would allow large companies to retain their protections under the law as long as they are more open about content moderation decisions.

Another proposal sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the committee’s ranking member, would revoke Section 230 privileges for the companies and offer them a chance to earn it back through content moderation.

[Repealing Section 230 could have unintended consequences for Trump and conservatives]

Technology industry representatives and free speech advocates have raised concerns about both bills, arguing that they would chill free speech online instead of preserve it because companies, fearful of lawsuits, would be forced to take more drastic content moderation decisions.

Still, the Thune-Schatz bill is thought to be the more nuanced of the two proposals, and analysts see it as standing a better chance of gaining support from Silicon Valley than Graham and Feinstein’s bill.

Whether Wednesday’s hearing will shed light on a bipartisan path forward on Section 230 is unclear. 

Lawmakers from both parties have criticized Facebook and Twitter in advance of next week’s presidential election, with Republicans lodging complaints of anti-conservative bias and Democrats airing grievances over the proliferation of election disinformation on each platform. 

The technology industry, in response, has accused lawmakers of seeking to influence the companies’ decisions in the run-up to the election.