When it was her turn to speak at Wednesday’s Senate Commerce Committee Hearing, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R–Tenn.) had a rather specific question fo Google CEO Sundar Pichai: “Is Blake Lemoine, one of your engineers, still working with you?”
Pichai responded that he did not know whether this particular individual was still employed by Google.
“Well, he has had very unkind things to say about me,” said Blackburn. “I was just wondering if you had kept him working there.”
Not every question posed to Pichai, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey hinged on whether an employee had personally insulted a member of the government, but a great many of them were of similarly dubious public value. As has been the case at previous Congressional hearings on tech issues, Democrats and Republicans assailed the CEOs for opposite problems, seeking openly contradictory solutions. In particular, the left wants to regulate Twitter and Facebook for allowing too much content, while the right wants to regulate these companies for allowing too little content. The only winner here is the regulatory state itself—certainly not the users of these tech platforms’ services.
Indeed, the government actually earned a concession from the CEOs—Zuckerberg in particular—that some reform of Section 230 (the federal law that allows the internet as we know it to function) might be amenable to Facebook. But as Zuckerberg rightly noted in one of his responses, changing the law and subjecting social media companies to increased liability could paradoxically help Big Tech by subjecting smaller competitors to un-survivable costs. Facebook, Twitter, and Google have armies of lawyers and can afford to spend money on compliance. If a new, smaller company comes along to challenge Facebook’s dominance, the regulatory barriers erected to control Big Tech would be too high for new competitors to surmount.
In holding this hearing, Senate Republicans—to their slight credit—had actually seized upon a legitimate grievance (albeit one the federal government is not at all positioned to solve): social media’s handling of the New York Post‘s Hunter Biden expose. A problem for the senators, however, quickly merged: Dorsey readily conceded that Twitter’s aggressive suppression of the link to the story was misguided, and had in fact admitted this—and vowed to change the policy—within hours of the initial controversy. He also said that the Post could easily recover its Twitter account.
“[Post editors] have to log in and delete the original tweet,” Dorsey explained. “They can tweet the exact same article today and it would go through.”
As is characteristic of these disputes, the concession actively displeased the other side. Sen. Brian Schatz (D–Hawaii) steadfastly maintained that the platforms had a duty not to circulate misinformation that “interferes in the election,” whether “foreign or domestic.” He complained that the Republicans were attempting to bully the CEOs into being nicer to conservatives—and then immediately began to bully them for being too nice to conservatives.
“You’ve hired Republican operatives, hosted private dinners with Republican leaders, and in contravention of your terms of service, given special dispensation to rightwing voices and throttled progressive journalism,” said Schatz.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: That’s the only rule of these increasingly fraught tech hearings.