By Nandita Bose
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee rejected a request by Republicans on Thursday to subpoena three top tech executives to testify at an upcoming hearing, accusing them of trying to use the subpoena power for political gain.
The committee, chaired by Republican Senator Roger Wicker, had planned to send out subpoenas if the chief executives of Twitter Inc, Alphabet Inc's Google and Facebook Inc did not agree to testify by the end of Thursday at a hearing about a law that protects internet companies over content posted by users.That sparked sharp pushback from ranking Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell. "I will not participate in an attempt to use the committee's serious subpoena power for a partisan effort 40 days before an election," she said.
Subpoenas on the Commerce Committee can be issued if both the committee chair and the ranking member sign off on them, something that Cantwell's spokesman pointed out. The majority cannot unilaterally issues subpoenas, meaning the subpoenas cannot be issued on Thursday, he said.
The next step is to schedule a vote, and if the committee chairman wins a majority he can send out subpoenas at a later date. The panel has scheduled a vote on the issue on Oct. 1. If the committee fails to secure a majority vote, that will leave the companies to agree to appear voluntarily.
The hearing is scheduled to discuss a legal immunity known as Section 230 that provides technology companies with immunity from liability over content posted by users.
Republican President Donald Trump has made holding tech companies accountable for allegedly stifling conservative voices a theme of his administration. As a result, calls for a reform of tech's prized legal immunity have been intensifying ahead of the elections but there is little chance of approval by Congress this year
On Wednesday, Trump met with nine Republican state attorneys general to discuss the fate of Section 230 after the Justice Department unveiled a legislative proposal aimed at reforming the law.
"In recent years, a small group of powerful technology platforms have tightened their grip over commerce and communications in America," Trump told reporters after the meeting.
"Every year countless Americans are banned, blacklisted and silenced through arbitrary or malicious enforcement of ever-shifting rules,” he added.
Trump, who regularly posts on Twitter, has had warning labels placed on some of his tweets by Twitter Inc, saying they included potentially misleading information about mail-in voting
Any substantial changes to reform the law will have to wait until after the Nov. 3 elections.
The chief executives of Google and Facebook along with Apple Inc and Amazon.com Inc recently testified before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee's antitrust panel.
(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler)