Tech Talk With Sean Burch and Alex Kantrowitz: What to Expect From Big Tech's Congressional Misinformation Hearing

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Tech Talk With Sean Burch and Alex Kantrowitz: What to Expect From Big Tech’s Congressional Hearing on Misinformation

Will the hearing lead to any meaningful changes for Big Tech and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act?

A who’s who of Silicon Valley tech executives are set to testify (virtually) before Congress once again on Thursday, giving TheWrap’s Sean Burch and Big Technology‘s Alex Kantrowitz plenty to discuss on the latest episode of Tech Talk.

Thursday’s hearing will focus on “misinformation and disinformation plaguing online platforms” — a lightening-rod topic over the last few years — and what the biggest tech companies are doing about it. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, in what seems like a recurring quarterly reminder the seasons have changed, will all be testifying. (All three executives have made multiple appearances before Congress in the last year, with Zuckerberg and Dorsey most recently addressing election misinformation concerns back in November.)

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As usual, the hearing will likely offer a few heated exchanges and the customary example or two of an elected official showing little knowledge of the platforms they’re grilling. You can also expect the questions to follow a familiar pattern, where Republican lawmakers ask why the platforms are censoring so much content, while Democratic lawmakers will ask why they’re not censoring enough.

As Kantrowitz said on the podcast: “Both sides have their own grievances [with the tech platforms]. Democrats are, ‘You elected Trump.’ The conservatives are, ‘You de-platformed Trump.’ Everything else is a detail after that.”

Potential fireworks aside, Burch and Kantrowitz discussed the key topic at hand, which is whether this hearing will lead to any meaningful changes for Big Tech. In particular, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — the broad legal shield that gives companies like Facebook and Twitter the ability to moderate content however they see fit — could end up being a key focus for lawmakers. Both Burch and Kantrowitz are skeptical, though, that Thursday’s hearing will result in sweeping changes — or that they’re even necessary.

But the hearing, at minimum, adds to the growing scrutiny Washington, D.C. has placed on Silicon Valley over the last year, with both Facebook and Google already fighting major antitrust lawsuits brought by the government. Kantrowitz said Big Tech, between the monopoly and misinformation concerns, is currently facing a bipartisan “all-out blitz” aimed at curtailing their power. “Could there be some meaningful restrictions on how [these companies] do business? Absolutely.”

You can check out a preview of Thursday’s hearing below. But be sure to watch or listen to the full podcast to hear Burch and Kantrowitz cover more topics, including why Apple seems to get a “pass” when it comes to criticizing Big Tech, and whether or not Kantrowitz has jumped into the NFT craze.

Sean: We’ve had a lot of these hearings over the last few years, where top tech executives testify before Congress. What should we expect to come out of this hearing?

Alex: It’s really questionable how accountable these platforms are to the government because ultimately there is a First Amendment, so the government can’t really tell them what to keep up or take down. The only thing they can do is strip away their legal protections, which would now make them liable for what is said on their platforms. But, you know, it’s a big question about whether they want to do that [and] what the side effects would be. There are always side effects to moves like this. And, yeah, I don’t think that will actually happen.

So why are we doing this? 

It’s definitely within Congress’ purview to examine this stuff because they do have the law — section 230 of the CDA — that gives these platforms immunity, that allows the speech to happen on them. So it is within their jurisdiction to have these conversations.

But is this a good faith examining of whether Section 230 is worthwhile law or not? Or is this a bad faith intimidation tactic to get these platforms to make content moderation rules and decisions that go along with their interests?  I’ve been watching this discussion happen for a very long time, and I can never answer the former. I think it definitely is one of those moments where we’re just seeing Congress try to work these platforms over, let them know they’re there, and if they start making decisions they don’t like, they’ll revoke the protections, and I think that’s what we’re looking at.

We’ve heard from both President Trump and President Biden that they’re not fans of Section 230. Are we actually inching towards seeing some changes to Section 230? 

We could, but I doubt it will really impact the tech giant’s businesses in any real way. And I think often times what happens with this is Congress does make a decision and it ends up hurting the little guy more than anything else. I think the tech giants will always find a way to comply with the laws and moderate their platforms, and maybe they just moderate more aggressively, if that law is amended or removed.

But what happens to smaller companies? What happens to my publication if someone writes something in the comments, and I’m now liable for it. I don’t have a team of lawyers, the way a Facebook or Google or Twitter does, in order to make sure I can stand up in court. So what probably happens is, I just shut down the comments altogether, and I don’t know if that’s good. Or what happens is I let them go, and I get sued out of existence because of them. So I’m curious what will happen with the regulations.

Watch the full conversation in the video above. For more tech coverage, subscribe to the Big Technology newsletter.

Sean Burch