Tech giants' choice of Russia witnesses draws concern

Tech giants' choice of Russia witnesses draws concern
© Getty

Facebook, Twitter and Google all announced on Thursday that they will send their general counsels to testify at House and Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on Russian election interference — a move that has drawn fire from critics who want more transparency from the tech giants.

The companies’ decision to send their top attorneys marks a step forward from when they had notpublicly stated if they would attend the hearings, causing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenators take fundraising efforts to Nats playoff games Senate Intelligence report triggers new calls for action on election security Senate Intel report urges action to prevent Russian meddling in 2020 election MORE (D-Va.) to threaten that he would subpoena the tech giants into testifying.

But some observers say that sending the lawyers, instead of top executives or technical experts, could limit how many questions the companies can answer. Critics argue that Facebook, Twitter and Google owe the public a fuller explanation as to what exactly happened on their platforms during the 2016 election, and they believe that explanation should come from the highest executives at the company.

“The technical experts simply have more knowledge than people on the legal side,” said Katherine Haenschen, who researches social media at Virginia Tech. “I understand why these tech companies want their lawyers speaking for them. It might be necessary to make sure that their more technical people field questions on this, though.”

Google and Twitter declined to comment on their decisions to send their general counsels, Kent Walker and Sam Edgett, respectively. Facebook justified sending general counsel Colin Stretch on the grounds that he led the company’s internal review of foreign interference on the platform.

Warner’s office said that they do not have position on which representatives the companies should send. 

In September, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrBlood cancer patients deserve equal access to the cure Senate Intelligence report triggers new calls for action on election security Senate Intel report urges action to prevent Russian meddling in 2020 election MORE (R-N.C.) said that he wasn’t concerned with who Facebook sent, so long as it was the most qualified person to explain election interference on its platform.

“I think it’s more important that we get the person who’s most capable of talking about the technical aspects of what they need to do to identify foreign money that may come in and what procedures, if any, need to be put in law that make sure elections are not intruded by foreign entities,” he said. 

Burr’s office declined to comment Friday on whether the general counsels were the most capable to explain the technical aspects of what happened.

Some experts aren’t sure that they are.

Haenschen argued that technology firm’s chief interest in the hearings is protecting their profits, instead of being transparent with how their platforms may have been used. Because of this, they’ve opted to send lawyers to minimize the risk of saying the wrong thing, instead of a technical expert or executive, according to Haenschen.

“My concern is that the platforms are going to be avoiding regulation that could affect their bottom line. It shouldn’t be about that, though,” Haenschen said. “Americans should be able to find out who is influencing in an upcoming election.” 

Alan Rosenblatt, a digital political strategist at the Democrat-aligned Lake Research Partners, raised similar concerns about the tech giants’ decision to send only their general counsels to testify.

“[Lawyers are] not the best person to send to Congress to educate,” Rosenblatt said. “They are the ones who are the most protective ones of what they would say.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Rosenblatt said that sending lawyers isn’t the wrong move, but qualified that they shouldn’t be the only representatives testifying on behalf of the companies.

“I wouldn't send just the general counsel. I would send someone who send who can speak to corporate policy, like [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg. Between her and the general counsel, those are the people who make decisions,” he said. 

Sandberg toured Capitol Hill last week to lawmakers and discuss foreign election interference on Facebook,as well diversity issues at the firm. 

It’s unlikely that Facebook, Twitter and Google will add anyone to the list of planned representatives at the hearings. Rosenblatt says that this par for the course in Washington.

“There’s an old joke that back in the day when the EPA set up regulation to protect the environment, Japanese car companies would call their best engineers to handle the problem,” Rosenblatt said. “America would send their lawyers to handle the regulations.”