Tech companies grilled over Russian election interference

Tech companies grilled over Russian election interference
© Camille Fine

Facebook, Google and Twitter officials were grilled on Tuesday by lawmakers from both parties on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who expressed frustration with the companies’ response so far to the use of their platforms by Russia in last year’s election.

Lawmakers pushed the companies for more answers on how their platforms were used by both Russia and terrorist groups, and stressed that it was in the national security interests of the U.S. to find solutions.

“The bottom line is that these platforms are being used to undermine and harm our way of life,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Overnight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Bipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House MORE (R-S.C.), the panel’s chairman.

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Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenPawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota EMILY’s List president: Franken did 'right thing for Minnesota' Dem pledges to ask all court nominees about sexual harassment history under oath MORE (D-Minn.) questioned why it took Twitter, Google and Facebook as long as it did to take notice of Russia’s actions.

“I want to understand why no one seems to have caught on to the Russian effort earlier,” Franken asked the firms.

“How did Facebook which, prides itself on being able to process billions of data points ... somehow not make the connection that ads paid for by rubbles were paid for by Russians,” Franken continued. “Those are two data points. How could you not connect those two dots?”

Testimony from the companies released on Monday revealed that posts from Russian agents on Facebook reached 126 million users over a two-year period before the election, while Twitter published more than 131,000 messages from Russia agents. More than 1,000 videos from Russian agents were uploaded to Google’s YouTube.

Company representatives testified Tuesday that this represented a small number of the posts, messages and videos about the election on their services, but this point didn’t go over well with every lawmaker.

“I would just urge you to stop making the argument that it’s such a small number and so we shouldn’t be concerned,” said Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenate Finance Dems want more transparency on trade from Trump Trump, Kushner meet with advocates on prison reform Democrats search for Russians — any Russians — for collusion story MORE (D-R.I.).

The hearings are expected to get tougher later this week when officials testify before the Senate and House Intelligence panels.

Members of the committees like Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffIntel Dem decries White House 'gag order' after Bannon testimony 'Total free-for-all' as Bannon clashes with Intel members Mueller has subpoenaed Bannon in Russia probe: report MORE (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Dem lawmaker wants briefing on major chip vulnerabilities Week ahead: Tech giants to testify on extremist content MORE (D-Va.) say that they will use the hearings to probe more deeply into similar issues addressed on Tuesday, like why it took the companies as long as it did for them to notice intervention and what further steps they’re taking.

“We want a picture of what actually happened in 2016,” Warner said last week of the upcoming Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. “I think there’s more than what we have seen.”

Warner has not hesitated to criticize the firms when he’s felt they were not being forthcoming.

In September, he publicly questioned Facebook’s commitment to uncovering the extent of Russian influence on its platform until the company offered more information on the matter.

Following a Twitter briefing on foreign actors using its platform for election meddling, Warner ripped Twitter’s analysis as “deeply disappointing.”

Senate Judiciary Committee members did try to press for more information during the hearing on Tuesday, but weren’t always able get what they wanted out from the company representatives.

Twitter general counsel Sean Edgett, Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch and Google director of law enforcement and information security Richard Salgado, for example, were hesitant to answer some questions at points during the hearing.

Each declined to offer a specific timeline to lawmakers on when they would release their findings from internal reviews of malicious foreign use of their platforms. The firms said that their investigations were ongoing and that they would release information as it became available.

They also demurred when Graham asked about what countries besides Russia might be using their platforms, saying that the threat was global but that they would have get back to the committee on specific threats besides Russia.

Facebook, however, did provide some insight into its operations to counter threats from extremists. Stretch explained that Facebook employees a team that includes 150 individuals whose sole focus is on combating extremist content across 30 different languages.

The firms say that there are still questions that they just don’t know the answers to yet.

“I’ve learned that we have a lot more work to do and we’re focused on that,” Edgett said towards the end of the hearing.