September 5, 2018
Senate Intelligence Committee hearings will begin today to examine a host of issues regarding big technology firms, including Facebook, Twitter and Google, and weigh whether the issues might be addressed by legislative or executive actions. Those companies already stand accused of not controlling the use of their platforms to disseminate misinformation and, in general, not taking enough responsibility for content. Meanwhile, conservatives accuse the platforms of bias in policing content.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the hearings “are expected to include Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and a representative of Google, as yet unconfirmed.” However, as of press time, Bloomberg explains that the Committee invited Alphabet CEO Larry Page or Google chief Sundar Pichai, “but the panel’s leaders rejected Google’s offer to settle instead for chief legal officer Kent Walker,” so there will reportedly be an empty seat alongside Dorsey and Sandberg.
“Despite Google’s absence from the witness table, the company on Tuesday posted what it called prepared ‘testimony’ from Walker on social media companies’ efforts to thwart election meddling in advance of the midterms,” reports Bloomberg. “Walker’s prepared testimony lists the four new types of disclosure the company promised concerning election advertising in his last congressional appearance in the fall of 2017. Those include databases listing election ads on Google Search, YouTube and across the web, as well as a verification program and disclosures on political ads.”
Top of the Senate’s agenda are “the efforts of the tech platforms to stamp out foreign election interference,” and what they are doing to protect the 2018 midterm elections, “amid repeated warnings from top U.S. intelligence officials that the election process remains under attack by Moscow,” notes WSJ. Last month, all three companies also discovered and erased fake accounts tied to Iran’s state broadcasting arm, “disclosures that widened concerns about how foreign governments — not just the Kremlin — are using social media to advance their geopolitical aims.”
The House Commerce Committee will also question Dorsey today. Republican congressman Greg Walden, who chairs the Committee, said the hearing will “pull back the curtain” on Twitter’s algorithms, which he said, “whether intentional or not,” create bias. In early October, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing “will focus on antitrust concerns, a big portion of which is likely to delve into the overwhelming market dominance of a handful of Internet companies.”
The hearings “underscore the once unthinkable possibility of sweeping action to curb the tech firms’ power,” adds WSJ. Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said he wants to “hear from the companies what ideas they think make sense … to combat misinformation, protect consumer data and privacy and promote competition in this space.”
Complicating the situation, President Trump has led a campaign by Republicans to “cast the firms as anti-conservative,” singling out Google and promising investigations. On the other side, Democrats “worry about privacy and antitrust concerns, and a repeat of the 2016 campaign, when they believe social media contributed to their losses.” If the Republicans retain control of the Senate and House, that could mean “consequences in Congress next year … in the form of possible new transparency requirements showing how algorithms run searches, news feeds and other operations.”
In the wake of strict privacy laws from the European Union and California, “many tech companies are running to Washington for help, actively lobbying for a uniform, less-onerous federal approach to privacy regulation that would substitute for what they fear will become overregulation by the states.”