The dome of the United State Capitol Building against a deep blue sky in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / The dome of the United State Capitol Building in Washington, DC.
Getty Images | Phil Roeder

The Senate Commerce Committee this morning voted unexpectedly to issue subpoenas to the heads of Facebook, Twitter, and Google to compel them to testify in a hearing—most likely before Election Day.

The committee agreed in a unanimous, bipartisan vote to require Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to appear (virtually) after none of the three executives had agreed by today to appear voluntarily.

Zuckerberg and Pichai, along with Apple CEO Tim Cook and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee earlier this year. That hearing, nominally about antitrust issues, instead squeezed two completely disparate realities together into one small room, as Democratic members primarily asked about competition issues and Republican members primarily complained about the Internet’s alleged (and unproven) “bias” against conservative voices.

The Senate hearing, when it eventually takes place, is almost certain once again to feature two entirely parallel realities. The Democratic members of the committee were initially expected not to vote in favor of the subpoenas or perhaps even to boycott the vote. However, the committee’s top Democrat, ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), agreed to support the measure after the committee chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), agreed that the hearing could include discussions of privacy and “media domination” in addition to questions about section 230.

“I actually can’t wait to ask Mr. Zuckerberg further questions,” Cantwell said during the committee’s meeting. “I think the issues that we are discussing of how we function in an information age are of extreme importance.”

But, she added, “What I don’t want to see is a chilling effect on individuals who are in the process of trying to crack down on hate speech or misinformation about COVID during a pandemic. Part of this discussion will end up being about the fact that some of these social platforms have tried to move forward in a positive way and take down information that is incorrect.”

Allegations of anti-conservative bias often spring from platforms removing or putting warning labels on false information related to the election and COVID-19 specifically, particularly as the president and his re-election campaign often spread false claims about both voting and the coronavirus disease.

Conservative politicians and media personalities have been targeting section 230, the Internet’s most important and most misunderstood law, all year. At the highest level, section 230 allows Internet platforms to moderate user content shared on those platforms more or less however they wish—heavily, moderately, or not at all—by making the entity that created the content, not the platform on which it is shared, responsible for it.

Several Republican members of Congress have introduced bills this year to reform or rewrite that particular section of law. The Department of Justice also took the unusual step of sending a proposed draft bill to Congress, full of provisions that would substantially weaken section 230 protections and could block most platforms from moderating content on the grounds of being “objectionable” but not illegal.

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