Rubio to Social Media Executives: What Happens When an Authoritarian Regime Asks You to Shut Down Dissent?

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) on Wednesday asked top social media executives how they would respond if an authoritarian government asks them to block certain users' accounts in order to silence dissenting voices.

Rubio posed his question to CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who were testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a hearing focused on whether the U.S. government needs to make regulatory changes for social media giants. Lawmakers are considering several ways to regulate big technology companies, including greater transparency related to foreign accounts and bots and a proposal to audit their algorithms used to determine what content users see.

Both Dorsey and Sandberg said their companies are committed to free speech and democratic values, and they discussed their ongoing efforts to block attempts by foreign actors to influence U.S. elections. Rubio pressed the executives on how committed their platforms are to protecting those values.

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"What makes [social media] good can be manipulated by bad actors to do harm," Rubio said. "What we're asking you to do, and I think what you've agreed to do, is to use the powers that you have within your platforms to crack down on certain users who are hostile actors, who are using disinformation or misinformation or hate speech for the purposes of sowing discord or interfering in our internal affairs. And that's a positive."

"Here's the problem," Rubio continued. "What happens when an authoritarian regime asks you to do that, because their definition of disinformation or misinformation could actually be the truth? Their discord, or what they define as discord, could be things like defending human rights. Interfering in their internal affairs they would define as advocating for democracy."

Rubio then asked the social media executives whether their companies support democratic values only in the United States or more broadly around the world.

"We support these principles around the world," Sandberg responded, adding that Facebook does not hand over user data, such as information about democracy advocates, to governments that may request the information for the company to operate in the country. Sandberg said that policy applies everywhere, including China.

Dorsey said his company allows "per country content take down," meaning that content that may not able to be seen in a specific country will be available everywhere else in the world.

"The world can still have a conversation around what's happening in a market like Turkey," he added. "We would like to fight for every single person being able to speak freely and see everything, but we have to realize that it's going to take some bridges to get there."

Rubio cited a Twitter spokesperson who previously said that "many countries, including the United States, have laws that may apply to tweets and/or Twitter account content," before asking Dorsey if he thinks there is a "moral equivalency" between what the United States is asking of social media companies and what authoritarian governments are asking of them.

Dorsey is also scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Google was asked to testify at Wednesday's hearing before the Senate committee but declined to send a representative. An empty seat was left in the hearing room to highlight Google's absence.