Lawmakers come down hard on Google for skipping Senate hearing

Lawmakers come down hard on Google for skipping Senate hearing
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers on Wednesday grilled top executives from Facebook and Twitter about their efforts to prevent foreign governments from influencing U.S. politics, but they saved their harshest criticism for Google and its decision not to send a top representative to testify on Capitol Hill.

“I’m deeply disappointed that Google – one of the most influential digital platforms in the world – chose not to send its own top corporate leadership to engage this committee,” said Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerRussia docs order sets Trump on collision with intel community Hillicon Valley: North Korean IT firm hit with sanctions | Zuckerberg says Facebook better prepared for midterms | Big win for privacy advocates in Europe | Bezos launches B fund to help children, homeless Bipartisan trio asks US intelligence to investigate ‘deepfakes’ MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which hosted Wednesday’s hearing. “Because I know our members have a series of difficult questions about structural vulnerabilities on a number of Google’s platforms that we will need answered.”

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Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio unloads on Turkish chef for 'feasting' Venezuela's Maduro: 'I got pissed' For Poland, a time for justice Judiciary Democrat calls for additional witnesses to testify on Kavanaugh MORE (R-Fla.), who’s also on the committee, suggested Google didn’t attend either “because they’re arrogant” or because of a BuzzFeed News story published Tuesday that showed researchers reportedly posing as Russian trolls were able to purchase ads on the search platform.

Google had offered up its vice president of global affairs, Kent Walker, to testify before the committee, but lawmakers wanted Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

Walker nevertheless submitted written testimony to the committee about actions Google is taking on foreign actors trying to manipulate its platform.

Lawmakers instead questioned Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg about steps their companies are taking to reduce foreign platform manipulation on their platforms.

Sandberg committed to not doing business with China or other countries that conflict with Facebook’s values.

“In order to go into China, we would have to be able to do so in keeping with our values. And that’s not possible right now,” she said.

Facebook had very limited success in the Chinese market.

During a separate line of questioning from Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonGOP senators condemn 'vulgar' messages directed at Collins over Kavanaugh GOP turns its fire on Google Overnight Defense: Trump denies report he's looking at Mattis replacements | Inhofe officially gets Armed Services gavel | Trump revives shutdown threat MORE (R-Ark.), Sandberg and Dorsey said they would not do business with China in a way that could undermine U.S. national security, as Cotton accused Google of doing.

The search giant has taken heat recently over reports of its considering introducing a Chinese search engine that would comply with that government’s censorship laws.

Dorsey told lawmakers that his company is considering adding suspensions to its transparency reports, as a part of a general expansion of the biannual reports.

Transparency reports have become standard among major tech companies like Facebook and Google as a way to partially reveal their interactions with the federal government.

Warner praised Twitter for its progress on handling foreign manipulation.

“After some initial false starts, it seems like there has been a shift in the culture of your company,” Warner said, though he raised the specter of congressional action.

“Congress is going to have to take action here,” said Warner. “The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end.”

Warner and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharGOP in striking distance to retake Franken seat Warner: 'overwhelming majority' of Republicans would back social media regulations Republicans block Democratic bid to subpoena Kavanaugh documents MORE (D-Minn.) last year introduced the Honest Ads Act, legislation aimed at regulating digital political ads in a manner similar to print, radio and TV political ads. The measure has not advanced in the chamber.

Wednesday’s hearing was a follow-up to one held in November that focused on foreign government manipulation of social media platforms to influence U.S. politics. Facebook, Twitter and Google revealed at the time that Russian’s had set up fake accounts to spread propaganda and misinformation in an attempt to sway the political opinions of Americans.

In July and August, the three tech companies disclosed new batches of fake accounts established by Russians, Iranians and other yet-to-be-identified groups that allegedly attempted to influence U.S. politics ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Sandberg reiterated that such threats would continue and that Facebook would keep working to address them.

"This is an arms race, and that means we need to be ever more vigilant,” she said.

Much of the drama came after the hearing in an adjacent hallway, where Infowars founder Alex Jones confronted Rubio, asking him about First Amendment rights and social media.

Rubio initially tried to dismiss the conspiracy theorist, who was temporarily suspended from Twitter, telling Jones, “I don't know who you are, man."

Jones at one point reached out to touch Rubio's shoulder, and the senator warned him not to touch him.

You are literally like a little gangster thug," Jones said to Rubio at one point.