Post-Zuckerberg, tech CEOs under pressure to testify

Leaders of major technology companies are under increasing pressure to testify before Congress as lawmakers sound the alarm about the industry’s data practices and market power.

It’s been a month since Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared in a pair of hearings on Capitol Hill to explain his company’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The executive largely held his own during the hours of questioning — thanks in no small part to lawmakers’ unfamiliarity with internet policy — but his answers didn’t alleviate concerns about privacy and antitrust. 

Now lawmakers are pushing for other major tech CEOs to testify before Congress.{mosads}

When Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, visited Capitol Hill on Thursday, a pair of top Republicans gently urged him to think about testifying, according to their aides.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he extended an open invitation to Dorsey to testify before the panel. The spokeswoman said Dorsey “expressed an interest” in the suggestion and the committee intends to have more discussions with Twitter. 

In an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle last week, Walden urged other technology CEOs to appear before Congress, saying that his committee still has questions about the industry after hearing from Zuckerberg. The Oregon Republican said he thinks it’s in their best interest if they testify sooner rather than later. 

“I strongly encourage the best and brightest of the tech world to accept this invitation,” Walden wrote. “Trust me, it’s much easier to testify at a congressional hearing before your company gets caught up in a scandal.”

That’s also what Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told Dorsey when they met on Thursday, suggesting that Twitter would fare better on Capitol Hill when the company is not facing a major controversy. 

According to a committee aide, the message Thune conveyed to Dorsey was, “Hey if I were you, I’d be looking for an opportunity to come in and testify and address questions and concerns members have about privacy and data retention and wrongdoing that happens on your platform — before there’s a very specific example that comes up and you’re answering those questions in the context of a specific problem.”

A Twitter spokeswoman declined to comment, but the company said in a statement on Thursday that Dorsey discussed data privacy during his meetings with lawmakers. Spokespeople for Google, Amazon and Apple — all of which were mentioned in Walden’s op-ed — either declined to comment or didn’t respond when asked about the possibility of their CEOs going before Congress.

The industry responded to Walden’s op-ed through its top lobbyist, Internet Association CEO Michael Beckerman, who offered to testify on behalf of Silicon Valley and cautioned against new regulations.

“Internet companies, like all industries, do not face a static set of challenges,” Beckerman wrote in a letter to Walden last week. “Static solutions in the form of regulations, based on a snapshot in time, are unlikely to withstand the stress of changed circumstances.” 

The implication of the warnings from Republicans is that the situation for technology companies in Washington is not going to improve. Still, Thune, Walden and other GOP leaders have so far resisted calls to pursue tougher regulations despite mounting data scandals, and that may not change even if other technology titans appear before Congress. 

After Equifax’s massive data breach exposed information for more than 145 million people last year, the credit bureau’s former CEO, Richard Smith, was grilled for hours over four marathon hearings in one week.

Lawmakers of both parties spent the sessions lashing out at the executive and his former firm but, seven months later, Congress has done little to crack down on the company or other data holders. 

Yet there’s little for tech companies to gain from the intense scrutiny that comes with testifying before Congress; the CEOs appear inclined to stay out of the spotlight while they can.

When it was revealed last year that a Russian “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency had purchased thousands of dollars of political ads on the internet and engaged in an online disinformation campaign, Congress invited social media CEOs to testify about their platforms’ roles in the scandal. 

Facebook, Twitter and Google sent their top lawyers instead.

But sending a lawyer wasn’t an option for Facebook after it was reported in March that a political consulting firm with ties to President Trump had improperly obtained data on 87 million Facebook users. The uproar over that scandal propelled Zuckerberg to appear before Congress for the first time. 

In the op-ed that Walden published in Silicon Valley’s backyard, he said Zuckerberg’s testimony only “scratched the surface” of consumer protection and privacy issues facing the industry, and that the public needs to hear more from technology leaders. 

“There’s no doubt that both lawmakers and consumers will recognize that this transparency is happening voluntarily and without negative press coverage or federal regulations forcing your company’s hand,” Walden wrote. 

Updated May 21 at 1:05 p.m.

Tags Donald Trump Facebook Google Greg Walden John Thune Mark Zuckerberg Social media tech industry Twitter

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