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Big Tech hearings haven’t done much. But this one could be different

March 25, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

Facebook, Alphabet, and Twitter CEOs will once again try to convince Congress that they’re doing everything they can to combat misinformation and extremism on their services. But given the numerous times the executives have been grilled by angry Congress members, what makes Thursday’s hearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce any different than the previous ones? 

Pamela Samuelson, co-director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, says: not much. She expects to see more finger-wagging from Congress to “show Big Tech that they aren’t the only ones in the U.S. who are powerful.”

“This hearing is going to be more theatre than substance,” she said. 

But Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who serves as a subcommittee chair for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said she expects to pepper executives with specific questions, including “quizzing” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on his support of updating Internet regulations. And more than anything else, Schakowsky expects Congress to send a loud and clear message to the CEOs: Regulation is coming.  

“What we’ve seen are apologies and excuses, time after time,” she said during a press event on Tuesday. “Time has run out.” 

Jennifer Lee, a partner at law firm Arent Fox LLP who deals with technology regulatory issues, seems to suggest that Congress, more than ever, is ready to get down to business and start passing bills. “It is the first time in this session of Congress, where the members have alignment in controlling both houses of Congress,” Lee said. There’s a “more realistic likelihood of passing legislation compared to the last four years.”

Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford University law professor who’s studied how the Internet impacts democracy, said Congress members would be wise to spend less time “banging on the table” and more time asking incisive questions that could help in developing future regulation. And the benefit of hosting numerous hearings, he said, is that regulators get more information that can be used in other Big Tech investigations, like those currently focused on antitrust.

Persily’s ultimate hope is that lawmakers “rip away the monopoly of content moderation” and consider introducing other intermediaries to aid with the issue. The companies “have to get out of the business of deciding what’s true or what’s hate speech or incitement,” he said.

But he also suggested that Congress not get carried away with trying to teach Big Tech a lesson without enacting practical solutions. “What’s motivating the political forces here is the desire to punish,” he said. “But it’s not clear that those tools for punishment are best suited to address the problems.”

Thursday’s hearing may be the umpteenth time we’ve seen these CEOs testify before Congress—but it’s likely not the last.

Danielle Abril
@DanielleDigest
danielle.abril@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Antivaxx concerns escalate. Speaking of misinformation on social media, a group of 12 Democratic state attorneys general are urging Facebook and Twitter to do more to combat COVID vaccine misinformation, which they say still reaches millions of people on social media services. The AGs sent a letter Wednesday, emphasizing the impact the false information may have on people’s willingness to take the vaccine, especially in communities of color. Though Facebook and Twitter have rules against misinformation related to the vaccine, the problematic posts are still easy to find on the services, according to The Washington Post.

Messenger’s militia matter. To add to the scrutiny of Facebook, on Wednesday the Department of Justice released a damning batch of messages on Facebook Messenger to and from a Florida leader of a militia group. The messages, which are a part of the DOJ’s investigation into the leader’s alleged attempts to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 election results, include calls for violence and an insurrection leading up the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. They also show how militia group members have continued to organize on the service despite Facebook’s crackdown on groups and pages.

Silicon Valley’s ‘shadow workforce.’ While Silicon Valley companies have largely opted to work remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, low-wage workers typically responsible for cooking, cleaning, and shuttling employees back and forth have paid a steep price. Wired explored the anxiety and financial insecurity facing these workers, who live in one of the most expensive areas in the nation. And the future for several workers still remains unclear as some companies consider permanent work-from-home policies.

Group mentality. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says he thinks the next decade of growth on the Internet will be defined by people sharing content in groups, according to Bloomberg. This helps explain why the CEO has been interested in potential deals with TikTok, Pinterest, and now Discord. By having creative apps under its umbrella, Microsoft could then sell more of its cloud software and tools to both the service and its users. Plus, let’s not forget that Microsoft already owns Xbox, the video-gaming brand known for its consoles.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Ahead of today’s congressional hearing, Roger McNamee, former Facebook investor and advisor to Mark Zuckerberg, made a bold suggestion for tech reform: felony charges for company executives. McNamee said he expects nothing to change for the companies after Thursday’s hearing. Meanwhile, the White House and Democrats are busy dealing with the pandemic and the economic damage it's resulted in. Felony charges could buy lawmakers some time and make a big difference in how companies operate until new laws get passed, McNamee writes in an op-ed for Wired.

“While it has not been a common practice to use felony cases to reform an industry, these are extraordinary times. The goal is not to put executives in jail, but rather to create incentives for good faith negotiation with corporations whose behavior poses a threat to society and the authority of the government.”

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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Can selling tweets help create the next Discord? By Robert Hackett and David Z. Morris

BEFORE YOU GO

Every time I turn around, a streaming service is raising its price.

Disney+ is the latest in the bunch, implementing its first price hike since the service debuted in November 2019. Starting on Friday, the company will begin charging a dollar more for a total of $7.99 a month or $80 a year.

With so many people subscribing to multiple services, I wonder how long it will take before people start clamoring for a cable-like subscription that includes content from some of the most popular services. Then, we’re back where we started…just without cords.