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Tech CEOs To Testify Before Senate Panel On Platforms' Legal Shield

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Americans have six days left to cast their votes in this most unusual presidential election. Never before has an election been so influenced by social media. Back in May, Twitter added labels to tweets that the company felt were potentially misleading, and that included tweets by President Trump. Facebook has now banned all new political ads between now and the election, though ads that have already been published are still visible. Google will stop all political ads from running after the polls close on Election Day. That's something Facebook has pledged to do as well.

So now the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google are all being made to defend those policies. They're set to testify today before the Senate Commerce Committee. Senators are weighing whether to reconsider the legal shield that has long protected the tech industry. NPR's Bobby Allyn is here to explain. Hey, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's just start off with the timing of all this. Why is this happening now?

ALLYN: So it's happening now because the calls, as you mentioned, have been coming for some time from Trump and from - even from Democrats in Congress to do something about this law, Section 230. Now, like you said at the top, Twitter - for the first time - placed a label on one of Trump's tweets that - you know, when he made a false claim about mail-in voting - and this just really irritated Trump, and it really amped his crusade to have the platforms reined in. Here's the president after Twitter flagged that tweet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They've had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens.

ALLYN: So Trump there was signing an executive order aimed at a law that protects the tech industry. Like I said, it's known as Section 230. And that is why Senate Republicans have today called this hearing.

MARTIN: OK, so this is this legal shield, Section 230. Explain what this law does.

ALLYN: Yeah. So it was passed in the mid-'90s during the early days of the Internet, if you can recall them. Back then...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I can.

ALLYN: Yeah. Back then, Facebook and Twitter were not yet around. But, you know, names like CompuServe and Prodigy were services people talked a lot about. And back then and now, the law gave tech platforms a shield that made their future growth possible. And, basically, what it says, Rachel, is that they cannot be sued for what's posted to their sites. But now this law is in peril because, for once, Democrats and Republicans can actually agree on something, and it's that this law is no good and it's got to go.

MARTIN: I imagine they may come to the same conclusion but different ways, right? I mean, do Democrats and Republicans agree on why Section 230 is so bad?

ALLYN: So the short answer is no. Democrats say it has let Facebook and Twitter, for years, have a hands-off approach to misinformation and hate speech. Republicans, on the other hand, say, hey, these platforms are hiding behind this law to suppress conservative views. Even Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg says this law should be updated. But he and many other tech leaders say repealing it completely would be a disaster because that would open the floodgates to endless lawsuits.

And, Rachel, we're not just talking about Facebook here; I mean, Wikipedia, Yelp, Reddit and so many other corners of the Internet that rely so heavily on this law could be subject to lots and lots of lawsuits if this law is repealed.

MARTIN: So, really, this is about - are these just platforms, or do they have some kind of editorial influence on the content they allow on their platforms? I mean, as part of this, Republicans today are expected to air grievances about what they perceive as a liberal bias on these platforms, right? What does the data say about that?

ALLYN: Right. So Republicans point to Twitter's decision to remove links on its platform - recently, the New York Post story about Hunter Biden that had some very questionable sourcing; Facebook also reduced the spread of that story. So there are lots of anecdotal one-offs like this. And then there's the data, as you mentioned, which presents a much different story. And the data says that conservative views and conservative stories actually are amplified on Facebook. It's some of the most engaged-with content, and the Facebook algorithm rewards engagement.

MARTIN: Yeah.

ALLYN: So it's actually the opposite of what some conservatives are saying, that Facebook and Twitter are helping conservative views and helping conservative stories reach bigger audiences than they ever could have imagined before these social networks.

MARTIN: Bobby Allyn, we so appreciate your reporting. Bobby covers the tech industry. We're talking about the hearing that's to take place today - the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google will all be on Capitol Hill answering questions today. Bobby, thank you.

ALLYN: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.