Tech beefs up lobbying amid Russia scrutiny
Major tech companies are beefing up their lobbying amid scrutiny from Congress over their handling of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter testified before lawmakers this month about Russian actors using their platforms to influence the vote and tried to reassure them they were taking steps to address the issue.
But lawmakers left the hearings frustrated and say they want more details from the companies and concrete steps to prevent interference in the future. Congress is also considering legislation to toughen disclosure rules for online advertisements.
That threat of tougher regulation has tech firms scrambling.
Facebook, which disclosed that Russian groups bought over 3,000 ads on its platform, recently hired Luke Albee to lobby on matters of “election integrity,” according to a lobbying disclosure form this month.
Albee previously served as chief of staff to Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and one of the biggest critics of how Facebook has dealt with the Russia revelations. Warner has pressed Facebook to reveal more information about the 2016 interference to investigators and the public.
According to the filing, Albee was brought onboard just two days before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, where Warner and other lawmakers grilled Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch and the top lawyers from Google and Twitter.
Facebook is also bringing other outside lobbyists to assist on the Russian investigation.
The company has hired David Wade, a onetime staffer of former Secretary of State John Kerry, Andrew Collins, a onetime aide to former Vice President Joe Biden, and Stewart Strategies.
Twitter is also spending more on lobbying over the Russia probes, hiring Integrated Solutions Group to advocate for it on “Russias [sic] use of social media platforms regarding the 2016 election” and Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas to assist with “Investigations into foreign interference in U.S. elections.”
The lobbying hires comes as Silicon Valley faces sharp criticism for not doing more to prevent Russian interference and skepticism that they are doing enough to address the problem.
“I don’t think we should take them at their word,” said Barbara Romzek, professor of the School of Public Affairs at American University. “I’m not sure — it’s not clear to me as someone observing that they’ve fully embraced their responsibility.”
Romzek said she hopes the lobbying blitz doesn’t dissuade lawmakers from taking tough steps to prevent foreign election interference online.
“Ultimately it’s not who is your lobbyist, it’s how thoughtful is the individual listening to them.”
Tech executives testified before three committees over two days and faced tough questions from lawmakers. Congress has made it clear they intend to keep up that scrutiny and push for more disclosures.
Google and Twitter agreed during a House Intelligence Committee hearing to make public some of the content created by Russian actors on their platforms, under pressure from the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.).
After the Senate Intelligence Hearing, Warner also said he wants more information.
“One thing that’s next is trying to get all of the Instagram data from Facebook,” Warner said.
Warner is one of the biggest proponents for a legislative fix. He has co-sponsored the Honest Ads Act with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). The bill would regulate political ads on social media the same way as ads on TV and radio stations, requiring companies to provide more disclosure about who is paying for them.
The pressure on tech companies is also bipartisan.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has also signed onto the bill.
Republican Sen. John Kennedy (La.) said the hearings didn’t provide enough information and that he wants to see tech CEOs — not just their top lawyers — testifying before Congress.
“I’m not interested in how many lawyers they can hire to dance on the head of a pin,” he said. “I would love to have their CEOs attend [another hearing].”
Kennedy also said he “liked the concept” behind Warner and Klobuchar’s bill, but wants to see social media companies do more.
“I’ve always been a proponent of less regulation for the internet than more,” he said, adding “I certainly didn’t contemplate that these companies would be so successful, so big and therefore so powerful.”
Twitter, Facebook and Google are all taking steps to stave off new regulations, including cracking down on Russia-linked accounts and new measures to improve transparency.
But so far those steps haven’t been enough for many lawmakers and it’s unclear if the new lobbying muscle will prevent tougher rules.
“The problem is, it has to cover everyone. You can’t just have a few companies doing it voluntarily. You also want to have it be in our laws,” Klobuchar said in October.
Romzek said she worries the lobbying push will distract tech companies from the real issue.
“I think it’s a troublesome sign when they put money into lobbying and not money into solving the problem.”
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