ATLANTA -- Tech companies are testifying on Capitol Hill as part of the ongoing congressional probes into interference in the 2016 election.

As Facebook, Google and Twitter have grown, they have become powerful tools with the potential to allow foreign powers to undermine democracy by spreading lies, creating misinformation and even inspiring terror attacks.

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And so, a new question is now rising and its answer could change the internet as we know it: Should these companies be held directly responsible for the content spread on their sites?


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Todd Stein, a Senior Fellow at Georgia Washington University's Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, previously worked with the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs which is responsible for the government's handling of homegrown terror issues. He sat down with 11Alive's Jeff Hullinger on Wednesday to discuss that very issue.

"For a long time, the tech companies have had basic immunity in Washington D.C.," Stein said. "Lawmakers have seen them as an enormous engine of growth - economic growth, hiring, jobs - and nobody wants to go after the internet, right? Nobody wants to regulate the internet."

But Stein said that the presidential election revelations and the latest terror attack in New York City, the government is taking a closer look at how these companies operate and how much access foreign powers have to them.

"Outside forces who don't like the United States, right, are using these tech companies to attack the United States," Stein said. "They're radicalizing individuals to commit terrorist attacks like they did in New York and they're implementing information campaigns like they did in the election last year and changing, you know, democracy."

Stein suggests one of the best ways to shift the focus of these companies would be to hold them in some way accountable for what they allow.

"Most companies who put something into the stream of commerce are responsible for what they put out into the stream of commerce," Stein said. "So, these tech companies are making money, with advertising, and one of the things that Congress could do is impose the same regulation on tech companies."

However, these actions could also raise serious concerns over information suppression and constitutional rights. Some opponents believe this type of regulation might even be an initial step in turning America into a police state.

But with companies, Stein said there is a deeper issue.

"That's a legitimate argument, you know, on first amendment grounds," he said. "But at the same point, if you're going to make money off the American economy, you also have to be responsible to the American public - for keeping people safe."

He said that right now, those tools are being used to hurt Americans.

Despite the fact that this issue has come up on a regular basis in the past, Stein said that the current debate may be serving as a "watershed moment" for Congress

"You saw minds changing on that dais from senators who are basically saying, "you (tech companies - Google, Facebook, Twitter) you don't get it. People are harmed because of the things you're not doing and if you don't change, we're going to change it for you'," he said.

He said it's a concern now crossing partisan lines and that both Republicans and Democrats are looking for a solution.