with Tonya Riley
Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey is returning to the hot seat on Capitol Hill for the first time in more than two years. And he’s expected to get a much more hostile reception as the social network’s political problems escalate.
The tech titan is expected to play defense as Republicans escalate their criticism of the social network for allegedly censoring them and showing bias against conservatives, based on specious evidence. Dorsey is expected to say that all content decisions are made “without using political viewpoints, party affiliation, or political ideology,” according to prepared testimony shared with The Washington Post.
“Our Twitter Rules are not based on ideology or a particular set of beliefs,” it says. “We believe strongly in being impartial, and we strive to enforce our Twitter Rules fairly.”
It’s the Twitter chief executive’s first appearance in front of Congress since the company began taking a harder line on misinformation about voting and coronavirus, even labeling or otherwise restricting the spread of President Trump’s tweets that break its rules. And Dorsey will also surely face scrutiny over the unusual steps Twitter took two weeks ago to limit the spread of New York Post articles about the alleged emails of Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The Washington Post has not been able to independently verify the emails.
Dorsey could face tough questions from Democrats on privacy issues, as they have their first opportunity to question him about the company’s July breach, which compromised the accounts of Democratic nominee Joe Biden and President Obama.
A circuslike atmosphere is expected at today’s hearing. Tensions are running unusually high with less than week before the election.
The committee says the hearing will be focused on reforming Section 230, a decades-old law that shields tech companies from lawsuits over the content-moderation decisions they make. In reality, Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai are likely to be on the receiving end of politicized attacks from lawmakers seeking to capture the attention of voters in the critical final days of voting.
“I fear this will be the opposite of the House hearing on antitrust that buttressed the notion that lawmakers are doing their job,” said Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business. Galloway said a focus on accusations of anti-conservative bias could “reenforce the notion that Congress and these subcommittees don’t understand technology, don’t understand the semantics and nuances of social media platforms.”
Dorsey is known for his nontraditional style, which may give him an advantage over other CEOs testifying.
Dorsey is the only chief executive who hasn’t appeared in front of Congress in recent months. Both Zuckerberg and Pichai appeared before the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee investigating competition issues.
The chief executive of Twitter is known for having a more candid and straight-shooting style than his industry counterparts, who were broadly criticized for being evasive during their recent appearances. That could benefit him even when lawmakers are bringing the heat.
“We’re going into this with the mindset that we’re trying to talk to the people on the other side of those cameras, [we’re trying] to talk to the American people,” said Brendan Borrman, the vice president of global communications at Twitter. “That’s more effective if you come across as a person who understands the challenges and risks.”
Dorsey’s distinct style was on display in his first back-to-back appearances on Capitol Hill ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. He famously appeared wearing a nose ring and no tie. Dorsey received positive feedback for speaking more candidly than Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in 2018, when the pair testified on election interference.
“He came out of the hearing in really good shape because he was answering the questions and wasn’t afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ or to say, ‘We messed this one up and we’re going to fix it,’” said Nu Wexler, a communications consultant who previously worked for Facebook, Twitter and Google. “As a witness, he does really well.”
But this time, Republicans want a showdown.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) attacked Dorsey on Twitter ahead of today’s hearing, sharing a meme calling him a “censorship czar.”
Cruz told The Technology 202 in a statement that he intends to press the chief executive on his handling of the New York Post articles. Dorsey has apologized for taking the extreme step of blocking users from sharing links to the controversial articles and, in a major reversal, changed the rule about hacked materials it cited in making the restrictions. Moving forward, Twitter will take down content under this policy only if it’s directly posted by hackers or those acting with them. It will label more questionable tweets. Twitter is now allowing people to share the Post articles on its service again.
Zuckerberg also is likely to face questions on this issue, too, as Facebook took the rare step of slowing down the article’s spread on its service. Cruz isn’t satisfied with the companies’ explanations and accused them long holding bias against conservatives, asserting they “crossed the Rubicon two weeks ago when they brazenly censored the New York Post’s reporting.”
“This is a gross abuse of power and, at [the] Commerce Committee hearing as well as next month’s Judiciary Committee hearing, I will demand answers on behalf of the American people,” Cruz said in a statement.
Dorsey probably will also have to answer for the restrictions Twitter has at times placed on Trump’s tweets.
Twitter has been on a collision course with Trump in 2020, since it began enforcing some of its policies that restrict manipulated media, as well as misinformation about the coronavirus or the voting process, against the president’s account. The company has been far more aggressive than its Silicon Valley peers in adding labels to provide more context about the president’s tweets, and in extreme circumstances, shielding them from view with a gray box and preventing them from being retweeted.
Trump and his allies have blasted the company for censoring them, and they have used the company’s labels as fuel for their calls to regulate the tech industry. Trump signed an executive order that aimed to change Section 230 shortly after Twitter labeled his tweets.
However, this could be an issue that helps Dorsey with Democrats, who have long called for the company to crack down on misinformation and other harmful content on its service, especially that originates from the president’s megaphone.
Expect major partisan divisions among lawmakers today.
Sen. Brian Schatz will tear into Senate Republicans for grilling the tech chief executives so close to a pivotal election, calling Wednesday’s hearing “a disgrace” and “a sham.”
“It is a scar on the Committee, and it is a scar on the United States Senate,” the Democrat from Hawaii will say, according to prepared remarks shared with The Washington Post. “What we are seeing today is United States senators attempting to bully the CEOs of private companies into carrying out a hit job on a presidential candidate by making sure they push out foreign and domestic misinformation meant to influence the election.”
He’ll accuse Republican lawmakers of being “successful at working the refs.” Instead of questioning witnesses on Section 230, privacy or other topics, he’ll use his time to make the case that Republicans are engaged in a coordinated effort to pressure the tech companies to not enforce their rules against conservatives for electoral gain.
“Don’t let the U.S. Senate bully you into carrying the water for those who want to advance misinformation,” he’ll tell the companies. “And don’t let the specter of removing Section 230 protections or any other kinds of threats cause you to pull your punches and subvert our democracy.”
Dorsey’s goal will be to keep the hearing focused on policy as lawmakers weigh changes to Section 230 or a complete revocation.
Twitter is the only company appearing before the Senate Commerce Committee that is not currently under investigation for antitrust issues, as it is significantly smaller than Facebook and Google. Dorsey plans to emphasize that changes to Section 230 could have the biggest effect on the companies’ smaller rivals.
“Eroding the foundation of Section 230 could collapse how we communicate on the Internet, leaving only a small number of giant and well-funded technology companies,” his prepared testimony says.
Our top tabs
A malfunction with Facebook’s pre-election ad ban blocked approved ads from political advertisers.
The glitch caused some ads to be incorrectly blocked, while allowing others that violated the company’s new policies on ads ahead of the election to remain, Rachel Lerman and I report.
Facebook introduced its policy to block new political ads in the week before the election and after voting to help curb misinformation and confusion. But the early glitch casts doubts on the platform’s ability to follow through.
The Biden campaign’s digital director, Rob Flaherty, called the Facebook policy “performative” and criticized it for the malfunction.
Political advertisers for both parties were also caught in the fray. DSPolitical, a political advertising firm that largely works with Democrats, reported several clients whose previously approved ads were blocked. The Trump campaign was also affected, a spokesperson told Adweek.
Meanwhile, Trump ads that mentioned Election Day, slipped through. Facebook confirmed the ad violated its policies.
Facebook product manager Rob Leathern tweeted Tuesday afternoon that the company was investigating the issue and was working on a fix.
A recent lawsuit puts spotlight on Indian caste-based discrimination in Silicon Valley.
A group of 30 female Indian engineers who are members of the Dalit caste and work for Google, Apple, Microsoft, Cisco and other tech companies say they have faced caste bias inside the United States, according to a statement shared exclusively with Nitasha Tiku.
“We also have had to weather demeaning insults to our background and that we have achieved our jobs solely due to affirmative action. It is exhausting,” they wrote. “We are good at our jobs and we are good engineers. We are role models for our community and we want to continue to work in our jobs. But it is unfair for us to continue in hostile workplaces, without protections from caste discrimination.”
They are not alone: A lawsuit from nonprofit advocacy group Equality Labs, alleges that Cisco violated the California Fair Employment and Housing Act by discriminating against a Dalit engineer. The lawsuit prompted nearly 260 U.S. tech workers to file complaints to the group.
Despite the pervasiveness of the discrimination, most tech companies do not explicitly prohibit caste-based discrimination. The lawsuit against Cisco could force a change in the industry.
“Then it doesn’t matter what Microsoft thinks, it doesn’t matter what Google thinks, it doesn’t matter what Amazon thinks. They have to pay attention to the law,” said Seattle-based Microsoft engineer Raghav Kaushik, who was born into a dominant caste but who has been involved in advocacy work for years.
Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook said their policies do not tolerate discrimination.
Foreign actors are exaggerating their ability to influence the U.S. election, Facebook warns.
The social media platform took down a small network of accounts targeting the U.S. election that were tied to the Iranian government yesterday, Rachel Lerman reports.
One of the accounts sought to amplify claims that the Proud Boys, a far-right group, sent emails to Democratic voters threatening them to vote for Trump. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence attributed the emails to Iran.
Facebook also removed a separate network originating from Mexico and Venezuela that targeted U.S. audiences. The pages reshared some content previously distributed by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, though it is unclear if there’s any connection with Russian intelligence.
“It’s important that we all stay vigilant, but also see these campaigns for what they are — small and ineffective,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said in a news release. “Overstating the importance of these campaigns is exactly what these malicious actors want, and we should not take the bait.”
Gleicher specifically warned about claims about compromised election infrastructure.
Some of the threats have been mitigated by U.S. intelligence calling out Iran and Russia over election interference, acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf told CBS News.
But the agency is on “high alert” ahead of the election, he said.
“This is a prime opportunity for any adversaries, whether it be Russia or Iran or it’s a cyberactor.”
Rant and rave
Hackers temporarily took down the Trump campaign website, bringing back this beloved meme format:
The FCC voted along party lines to reaffirm its repeal of net neutrality.
The vote responded to a court ruling asking the agency to evaluate how the repeal would affect public safety and lifeline access. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai (R) previously said he was confident that the order adequately meets the ruling’s concerns.
Both Democrats on the committee voted against upholding the appeal. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (D):
Inside the industry
Cisco will roll out a new version of Webex targeted at lawmakers.
Webex Legislate will offer specialized features, including secure sidebar rooms and a real-time voting feature, the company announced today. Lawmakers can customize their virtual sessions with rules and procedures, as well as party identifiers
Congress already uses Webex for hearings, but it is unclear whether either chamber will take advantage of the new system. Lawmakers have expressed skepticism about the security of remote voting.
Webex says it has been piloting the tool with regional and national governments, but it declined to name any participants.
- The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing today to examine Section 230 immunity at 10 a.m.
- Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter and Spotify release earnings on Thursday.
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