The Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday voted to subpoena the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter for testimony on the liability protections that shield them from lawsuits over users’ posts, among other tech issues.
The committee secured the subpoenas by voice votes, with Democratic assents despite earlier outcry. That gives the panel the authority to subpoena Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. Timing on issuing subpoenas or a potential hearing was not immediately clear.
On Trump’s radar: The White House has pressured Capitol Hill Republicans to move forward with such tech scrutiny and has applauded the recent actions.
Senate Commerce Chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) had pushed to issue subpoenas to the CEOs last week, a move showing unusual intensity and stirring concerns among Democrats of partisan maneuvering aimed at chilling tech platforms’ willingness to moderate election-season content. He scheduled Thursday’s vote after ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) opposed allowing him to proceed with subpoenas without a committee vote.
Wicker originally set out to hold a hearing featuring the executives focused on the liability protections of 1996’s Communications Decency Act Section 230, which shields internet platforms from liability over the content that users post and gives them wide latitude to police that content. The companies have declined to make the CEOs voluntarily available, Wicker said during Thursday’s markup. Although top tech executives have testified before Congress in recent years, lawmakers have so far managed to secure the testimony on a voluntary basis following what’s often been lengthy negotiations.
“I fear that Section 230’s sweeping liability protections for Big Tech are stifling the true diversity of political discourse on the internet,” the GOP chair warned. “This is not a partisan issue.”
Why Democrats signed on: Wicker added data privacy and media issues in the subpoena requests, according to Cantwell. Although she worries about a chilling effect on the platforms, she said she welcomes discussing this broader array of issues with the tech executives.
“I understand my colleagues’ desires here, so [I’m] happy to move forward on these subpoenas with the additions,” she said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said during the markup session that she didn’t agree with GOP claims of anti-conservative bias but supports getting the tech executives in front of the panel, citing a need to probe the companies on matters of antitrust, privacy and media consolidation. “We are joining you with this subpoena, but you need to join us,” she told Republicans, adding no substantive action can happen in the final month ahead of an election.
Commerce Democrats considered boycotting the vote in protest en masse, but ultimately opted against, according to one person with knowledge of the plans, who spoke anonymously to discuss private deliberations. And during Thursday’s meeting, some Democrats voiced ongoing concern.
“The timing of this hearing should be after the election,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.
“This appears to me like an attempt to work the refs coming up to the election,” added Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
What’s next: The high-profile step comes weeks away from the November election and marks a sign of escalating GOP attention to the major tech platforms, which seem poised for a standoff over social media content posted by President Donald Trump and his campaign as they repeatedly attack the legitimacy of mail-in ballots.
Facebook on Wednesday announced that the company would not only bar premature announcements about electoral victory but said the company also wouldn’t allow, effective immediately, advertisements with content seeking to delegitimize the election’s outcome. The company said that would include calling a method of voting inherently fraudulent. Trump in recent weeks has blasted voting by mail as rife with fraud.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign had pressed Facebook chief Zuckerberg earlier this week on allowing the “dangerous claptrap” they saw in Trump campaign postings.
Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.