Technology

Lawmakers come down hard on Google for skipping Senate hearing

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 Warner (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."

Sen. Marco Rubio (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 Cotton (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 Klobuchar (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.

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