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Google, Facebook CEOs Could Face Subpoena From Senate Panel

Ben Brody and Rebecca Kern
·3-min read

(Bloomberg) -- The Senate Commerce Committee will vote on whether to subpoena the chief executive officers of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. because they have declined testify on a legal shield that protects online platforms against lawsuits, a committee spokesperson said.

The vote to issue subpoenas for Sundar Pichai of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey will take place on Oct. 1, the committee said Thursday afternoon.

On Thursday night, the spokesperson, Alexis DeJarnette, said all three executives had refused to appear.

Earlier, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the Republican-controlled committee, called the subpoena threat a “partisan effort 40 days before an election.”

“Taking the extraordinary step of issuing subpoenas is an attempt to chill the efforts of these companies to remove lies, harassment, and intimidation from their platforms,” she said in an emailed statement.

Under committee rules, if the ranking member doesn’t agree to a subpoena request from the chairman, the chairman can call for a full committee vote on the matter.

The panel wants the men to address Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which allows the platforms to avoid lawsuits over content that their users post, according to another committee spokesperson, who was granted anonymity to discuss the proceedings.

The legal shield has increasingly come under attack in Washington. The Justice Department on Wednesday unveiled its latest proposal to overhaul the law. The Federal Communications Commission is also considering changes via a rulemaking requested by President Donald Trump in response to Twitter’s fact-checking of some of his posts.

Google and Twitter didn’t respond to requests for comment. Facebook declined to comment. Politico reported the panel’s subpoena threat earlier on Thursday.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are seeking their own changes to Section 230, although they have differed on the approach and the goals.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker of Mississippi recently sponsored a bill to narrow the companies’ discretion over what content they take down.

Conservatives have been seeking to change the law to address what they say is bias by the big tech companies against right-wing views. Trump met Wednesday with Republican state attorneys general on the alleged bias issues and the gathering emphasized concerns about Section 230.

The companies have denied they are biased and argue that the provision protects free speech while allowing them to take down the most vile content without fear that they’ll be subject to litigation for doing so.

Pichai and Zuckerberg also recently voluntarily testified remotely before a House subcommittee looking into competition in tech. Dorsey has previously testified before Congress.

Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, another tech critic in the GOP, introduced a motion on Thursday to pass his recent bill that seeks to prohibit companies from receiving Section 230 protections unless they update their terms of service to operate in good faith. That bill has no Democratic cosponsors. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who helped author Section 230, blocked Hawley’s motion.

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