Big Tech Glenn Greenwald

Congress Demands Tech CEOs Censor the Internet in Despotic Hearing

The repressive objective of the Democratic-controlled Congress is to transfer the power to police and censor political discourse from these tech giants to themselves.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Google/Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Mar. 25, 2021. [Screen shot]

By Glenn Greenwald / Substack

Over the course of five-plus hours on Thursday, a House Committee along with two subcommittees badgered three tech CEOs, repeatedly demanding that they censor more political content from their platforms and vowing legislative retaliation if they fail to comply. The hearing — convened by the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Chair Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), and the two Chairs of its Subcommittees, Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) — was one of the most stunning displays of the growing authoritarian effort in Congress to commandeer the control which these companies wield over political discourse for their own political interests and purposes.

As I noted when I reported last month on the scheduling of this hearing, this was “the third time in less than five months that the U.S. Congress has summoned the CEOs of social media companies to appear before them with the explicit intent to pressure and coerce them to censor more content from their platforms.” The bulk of Thursday’s lengthy hearing consisted of one Democratic member after the next complaining that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google/Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have failed in their duties to censor political voices and ideological content that these elected officials regard as adversarial or harmful, accompanied by threats that legislative punishment (including possible revocation of Section 230 immunity) is imminent in order to force compliance (Section 230 is the provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that shields internet companies from liability for content posted by their users).

Republican members largely confined their grievances to the opposite concern: that these social media giants were excessively silencing conservative voices in order to promote a liberal political agenda (that complaint is only partially true: a good amount of online censorship, like growing law enforcement domestic monitoring generally, focuses on all anti-establishment ideologiesnot just the right-wing variant). This editorial censoring, many Republicans insisted, rendered the tech companies’ Section 230 immunity obsolete, since they are now acting as publishers rather than mere neutral transmitters of information. Some Republicans did join with Democrats in demanding greater censorship, though typically in the name of protecting children from mental health disorders and predators rather than ideological conformity.

As they have done in prior hearings, both Zuckerberg and Pichai spoke like the super-scripted, programmed automatons that they are, eager to please their Congressional overseers (though they did periodically issue what should have been unnecessary warnings that excessive “content moderation” can cripple free political discourse). Dorsey, by contrast, seemed at the end of his line of patience and tolerance for vapid, moronic censorship demands, and — sitting in a kitchen in front of a pile of plates and glasses — he, refreshingly, barely bothered to hide that indifference. At one point, he flatly stated in response to demands that Twitter do more to remove “disinformation”: “I don’t think we should be the arbiters of truth and I don’t think the government should be either.”

Zuckerberg in particular has minimal capacity to communicate the way human beings naturally do. The Facebook CEO was obviously instructed by a team of public speaking consultants that it is customary to address members of the Committee as “Congressman” or “Congresswoman.” He thus began literally every answer he gave — even in rapid back and forth questions — with that word. He just refused to move his mouth without doing that — for five hours (though, in fairness, the questioning of Zuckerberg was often absurd and unreasonable). His brain permits no discretion to deviate from his script no matter how appropriate. For every question directed to him, he paused for several seconds, had his internal algorithms search for the relevant place in the metaphorical cassette inserted in a hidden box in his back, uttered the word “Congressman” or “Congresswoman,” stopped for several more seconds to search for the next applicable spot in the spine-cassette, and then proceeded unblinkingly to recite the words slowly transmitted into his neurons. One could practically see the gears in his head painfully churning as the cassette rewound or fast-forwarded. This tortuous ritual likely consumed roughly thirty percent of the hearing time. I’ve never seen members of Congress from across the ideological spectrum so united as they were by visceral contempt for Zuckerberg’s non-human comportment:


But it is vital not to lose sight of how truly despotic hearings like this are. It is easy to overlook because we have become so accustomed to political leaders successfully demanding that social media companies censor the internet in accordance with their whims. Recall that Parler, at the time it was the most-downloaded app in the country, was removed in January from the Apple and Google Play Stores and then denied internet service by Amazon, only after two very prominent Democratic House members publicly demanded this. At the last pro-censorship hearing convened by Congress, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) explicitly declared that the Democrats’ grievance is not that these companies are censoring too much but rather not enough. One Democrat after the next at Thursday’s hearing described all the content on the internet they want gone: or else. Many of them said this explicitly.

At one point toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX), in the context of the January 6 riot, actually suggested that the government should create a list of groups they unilaterally deem to be “domestic terror organizations” and then provide it to tech companies as guidance for what discussions they should “track and remove”: in other words, treat these groups the same was as ISIS and Al Qaeda.


Words cannot convey how chilling and authoritarian this all is: watching government officials, hour after hour, demand censorship of political speech and threaten punishment for failures to obey. As I detailed last month, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the state violates the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee when they coerce private actors to censor for them — exactly the tyrannical goal to which these hearings are singularly devoted.

There are genuine problems posed by Silicon Valley monopoly power. Monopolies are a threat to both political freedom and competition, which is why economists of most ideological persuasions have long urged the need to prevent them. There is some encouraging legislation pending in Congress with bipartisan support (including in the House Antitrust Subcommittee before which I testified several weeks ago) that would make meaningful and productive strides toward diluting the unaccountable and undemocratic power these monopolies wield over our political and cultural lives. If these hearings were about substantively considering those antitrust measures, they would be meritorious.

But that is hard and difficult work and that is not what these hearings are about. They want the worst of all worlds: to maintain Silicon Valley monopoly power but transfer the immense, menacing power to police our discourse from those companies into the hands of the Democratic-controlled Congress and Executive Branch.

And as I have repeatedly documented, it is not just Democratic politicians agitating for greater political censorship but also their liberal journalistic allies, who cannot tolerate that there may be any places on the internet that they cannot control. That is the petty wannabe-despot mentality that has driven them to police the “unfettered” discussions on the relatively new conversation app Clubhouse, and escalate their attempts to have writers they dislike removed from Substack. Just today, The New York Times warns, on its front page, that there are “unfiltered” discussions taking place on Google-enabled podcasts:

New York Times front page, Mar. 26, 2021

We are taught from childhood that a defining hallmark of repressive regimes is that political officials wield power to silence ideas and people they dislike, and that, conversely, what makes the U.S. a “free” society is the guarantee that American leaders are barred from doing so. It is impossible to reconcile that claim with what happened in that House hearing room over the course of five hours on Thursday.

Glenn Greenwald
Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a journalist, constitutional lawyer, and author of four New York Times best-selling books on politics and law. His most recent book, “No Place to Hide,” is about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. The NSA reporting he led for the Guardian was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service. He co-founded The Intercept in 2013, resigning in October 2020.

18 comments

  1. The problem is not that content is conservative or liberal. The problem is when it is false. Social media platforms should be held to the same libel and false information standards as print publications.

    1. The entire mainstream media is lying all the time, non-stop 24/7, and they are held to no account at all. Censorship is totalitarian in it’s very nature.

      1. First page of the Official U.S. Congress Playbook

        1. Find someone else to do the dirty work.
        2. Point the finger at someone else when policy fails.
        3. Disavow all responsibility for problem resulting from failed policy.
        4. Seek support of key figures from BOTH sides of the isle.
        5. Accept ALL financial tribute that is offered, even from those you are expected to regulate.
        6. Repeat as necessary. ESPECIALLY #5.

    2. Holding anyone accountable for libel or slander under American law is almost impossible. Ask any intelligent attorney and they will tell you the same thing.

      Holding ANY billionaire accountable for slander and libel is virtually impossible under civil or criminal statutes even if government prosecutors are the adversary and that includes the tech companies that own all of the social media platforms.

      The annals of American jurisprudence are filled with examples of the rich successfully avoiding convict by outspending the opposition.

      In the American court room he/she who has the most money wins in the vast majority of cases.

      The only legal adversary with more money than big-tech is the USGOV, which is owned and operated by the very techno-corps that some suggest need to be held accountable for the content that appears on the social media platforms owned by these companies.

      Here in Oregon where I reside, the state government attempt to mount a civil prosecution against the tech giant Oracle after the company botched the development of Oregon’s healthcare marketplace website, costing the state several hundred million dollars by some accounts. Oracle appeared in court with an army of high-priced legal talent and proceeding to b*tch-slap the state’s legal council from one end of Silicon Valley to the other.

      The mainstream media on the other hand, is rarely, if ever held accountable under defamation statutes anywhere in the U,S, either at the state or federal level; either in civil or criminal courts.

      Congress is weak ineffectual governmental body which lack principle, leadership and most of all political temerity.

      Government at all all levels is compromised by corporate sponsorship from the front of the isle to the back. From the right side of the isle to the left. In every chamber and every statehouse in the country.

      To make government responsible and responsive to the will of governed all government must be dis-empowered. Until every elected official from the smallest small town mayor to the POTUS is running scared every day of their political life, nothing is going to change. NOTHING!

    3. Nancy who determines what is “false”.
      Actors like Clinton who smear Tulsi Gabbord as a “Russian asset”?
      Actors who proclaim the richest country that ever existed can’t afford Universal Healthcare?
      Or Trumpian actors who tout the United States has had the greatest response to the Covid 19 pandemic, the 2020 election was stolen, climate change is a hoax?
      Or how bout when Fauci LIED lethally telling the public that “There’s no reason to be walking around with masks,” when he and other high ranking experts knew better BUT also knew unlike every other country in the world The United States of America was woefully unprepared in fact the most unprepared to combat Covid-19 (And the #of cases/deaths attest to this moral failing)in a pathetic attempt to save enough masks for healthcare first responders who were forced to share mask while sick and dying patients flooded into the owhelmed hospitals.
      Lots of in all forms of media.
      Like Biden beligerently proclaiming “Universal Healthcare” wouldn’t have made difference in fighting the Pandemic.
      Not sure if Trump saying Covid 19 is like the flu or of Biden saying universal healthcare wouldn’t make a difference is bigger more lethal of the two lies.
      Either way, each lie killed people and the latter continues.
      Every day.
      Pandemic or not.

  2. Thanks Glenn, for explaining these events so clearly. I grew up during the Soviet Union, and the US gov’t is becoming more and more like what I remember of it: the massive surveillance and attempt to control or coerce every aspect of peoples’ lives. The Nazis would be jealous of the US military complex: they’ve been able to corrupt, strip countries of their resources and commit genocide, usually through proxies to deflect blame, all while the media trumpets the US as a beacon of light and progress.

    These Senators and Congress people don’t realize that by concentrating power and stifling open debate, they are setting themselves up for persecution, too. Look at what happened in ancient Rome, when Commodus took the throne from Marcus Aurelius: under Marcus, senators had been free to debate their opinions, but due to the concentration of power in the Emperor, his son Commodus later treated any dissent by the elites with exile or execution.

    I think for anyone that has a good life now, in terms of income, home, family, etc, it’s hard to imagine some of the implications of this censorship. By this I mean, life is good enough for many people, that they won’t try to confront these changes.

  3. It is unfortunate that the entire onus of platform “regulation” is being heaped on the shoulders of the tech giants.
    Are the people who designed and built America’s interstate highway system responsible for reckless driving?
    Rules of the road were created by state, federal, and local governments to prevent chaos.
    The internet needs regulation and oversight in the area of commerce to prevent consumer ripoff. As it stands, there is too little accountability and the consumer is the one to suffer.

    1. Our Congress and politicians countenance Internet ripoffs, as critical to capitalism: “Caveat emptor”. It’s only MISINFORMATION if it goes against the Establishment.
      What they will not tolerate is criticism; they are a special class, above the Law.
      Greenwald believes strongly in FREE SPEECH in the classical sense, and is an excellent advocate for this most fundamental of human rights. Anyone should be able to say anything, even playing devil’s advocate without repercussions, unless carefully linked tightly to violence. As SCOTUS has ruled repeatedly Hate Speech is Protected Free Speech.
      Once again Congress is trying to overturn the First Amendment by forcing private companies to censor anyone who deviates from the Official Narrative (which if TRUE, clearly should be able to withstand criticism, challenge, dissent and debate). The next step will be burning and banning books.

    2. the state built the highways, interstate and other, they wrote and enforce the rules.
      The state, via universities & the mil, built the internet, assumed it would be public but then it was privatized, monetized, and commercialized.
      We could undo the last part.

  4. All three of the men on that committee are “Democrats”!

    Shows that the Democratic Party hasn’t just become the former Republican Party, as some are saying. It’s far to the right of the Republican Party of Eisenhower. It’s now the Nazi Party.

    When are the American people going to stop being afraid and stand up?

    Please watch How to Start a Revolution, DVD documentary about nonviolent resistance, and read From Dictatorship to Democracy, the book. The late Dr Gene Sharp studied revolution and found that nonviolence is more successful than violence in overthrowing a repressive government.

  5. Take a look at what is currently happening in Myanmar. USA is just a few threads away from this.

  6. Mark Zuckerberg is the douchebag that the school bully likes to beat up.

  7. “…Unfiltered Streams of Hate” So then the problem must be that what’s needed is filtered, well-reasoned streams. Which would allow plenty of room for expressing contempt for the working class. Thinly disguised in arcane language about intersectionality, cultural deficits, failure to adjust to economic realities, irrational resentment.

    Words that reassure the educated, administrative, and professional elites of their own meritorious and moral superiority. The 20%ers the neolib Dem “moderates” actually represent. Once in awhile some member of this vanguard of the upper middle class slips up and speaks sans filters. Then we hear their real feelings about us. That “basket of deplorables.”

    Well, some of my ancestors were excellent basket makers. And I myself spent two decades as a blue collar worker–dirty clothes, dirty hands, dirty mind weaving fantastic tales. Like the Luddites; weavers falsely accused of being old fashioned and ignorant by the intellectuals and owners of their day. When in fact they weren’t fighting new technology, but rather the inhumane deskilling of their jobs. Same old story. As my grandfather the Wobbly would have asked: “Which side are you on?”

  8. The greatest strength of the Corporate Capitalists who rule all is the convoluted nature of their power and control. It is not centralized and indeed sometimes factionalized, as the oligarch’s vie for power and control with each other. But there is a pattern to the propaganda, gaslighting, and censorship of the digital commons and it all points in one direction. There are layers to this evil and like an onion, as you peal each layer back you find a deeper, uglier evil behind it all. Truth is the war was lost a long time ago and they now control…. everything along with their good buddies the MIC and the Deep State. Democracy is dead and pushing up daisies and the left, well it’s been eradicated and replaced with trained victims totally incapable of defending themselves. This story doesn’t have a happy ending….

  9. JustAMaverick:

    Most people are trying to have a good life, as best they can, given the circumstances, rather than organize reform or revolt. There are many times in history where societies became factionalized and sometimes this laid the soil for a rebirth of something better: think Rome and Renaissance Italy, or the changes Europe made to its society to never repeat World War II. It will be harder, with climate change and our complex society, to come back if there is a breakdown. I think the pessimism is warranted and demands collective action, but no one (including myself) knows how it will play out in the long term.

    Susan Mercurio:

    Thank-you for the references. It seems to me that non-violent protest only matters in a society that has some respect for civil norms: I’m thinking of Britain and Gandhi. In a future dystopia, elites may not have to care how they appear. Peaceful protest today matters most, as if (when?) the US becomes a tyranny, it could lead to another holocaust for anyone deemed unworthy by the state.

    Some additional thoughts regarding the hearing, in a larger context:

    If the Democrats and Republicans succeed in increasing their censorship powers, it seems less likely that we can deal with upcoming technological or climate shifts, in a way that helps ensure our collective wellbeing. Complex problems need free, open debates and sharing of ideas, and harsh censorship runs counter to this.

    Given that the tech monopolies already censor their traffic, how long is it, due to the loss of Net Neutrality, before websites like Scheerpost are blocked access to bandwidth by the telecom companies? or struck from web access entirely? As time goes on there may be little to differentiate the freedoms that are upheld in the US versus China.

  10. So much for Voltaire, the Free Speech and Free Press clauses of the First Amendment, and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Remind me again why we are a beacon of freedom and liberty compared to our putative archnemesis, China…?

  11. Congress needs a lesson in Constitutional Law with a test at the end to make sure each and every one understands the Law and will apply it. Simply being elected and running wild violating our Constitution is a waste of time and money neither of which the taxpayers have any patience for anymore. Be responsible, uphold the law, let the Courts define the Law and you can legislate to clarify it further. But pontificating and threatening is not the answer to anything.

  12. I’m on the fence about this article because I do believe companies censor too much. But I also think that we have a history of domestic terrorism, groups that can be defined as domestic terrorists, groups that have a history of lynching and rape as a part of their culture, groups that openly advocate violence and groups wanting to return to slavery.
    They should be labeled as terrorists because of their historical connections to terror and they should be outlawed.
    That said, yes, corporate censorship is scary. But what do you do when one person has 5 million followers and that person advocates the overthrow of our government? That’s not free speech. That’s the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater, which has always been restricted.
    My worry is that eventually all political speech will be banned or strictly limited on social media. Kind of like the way it is in the corporate news media, where they can discuss the tactics of foreign policy but no one ever discusses if the strategy is right. That is, the analysis is always: Should we have done a troop surge? Not: Should we continue overthrowing countries based on banking and energy interests?
    What is the answer to this dilemma? Legislation will probably make matters worse not better if it does protect journalists from police during campaign rallies and demonstrations, protect journalists free-speech even when they are employed by a corporation and speaking as a private citizen — and makes threatening or assaulting a journalist the equivalent of threatening the president, even if the assault comes at the hands of private security or police.
    But how do we get around “advertising objectivity“? You know, when two pathological liars are interviewed and the journalist does nothing to tell us they’re both pathological liars with a documented history of lying?
    That’s a problem only journalists can solve for themselves — and that must come with a recognition from journalists that what they call “objectivity“ is complete and utter bullshit. They need to look at what science calls objectivity and proceed from there, not what furniture companies, who buy newspaper ads, perceive as objectivity. It’s why so many people hate journalism. No one wants to walk away from a debate thinking: Both those guys were lying.
    But, yes, as far as banning Trump and banning trolls who use proxy servers to amplify the posts of five people to make them sound like 5000 people — and those posts advocate violence — yes, they should be banned and criminalized.

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