GOP turns its fire on Google

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE's fight against Google is making its way down Pennsylvania Avenue to Congress.

Republican lawmakers are ramping up their scrutiny of the tech giant after Trump accused Google of political bias and questioned whether regulators should take a closer look at its market powers.

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Google added fuel to the fire on Wednesday by skipping a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on foreign influence operations.

The committee sought top executives from each company to testify and successfully secured commitments from Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

Google offered to send Kent Walker, its vice president of global affairs. Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrOvernight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas Graham: Mueller is going to be allowed to finish investigation Trump authorizes sanctions against foreign governments that interfere in US elections MORE (R-N.C.), though, rejected that offer in hopes of securing a more senior executive. Google ended up only submitting written testimony from Walker.

That move infuriated lawmakers, who took turns blasting Google during the hearing, which included an empty chair.

Burr said that he was “disappointed that Google decided against sending the right senior-level executive,” to the hearing.

The anger was bipartisan. 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 Intelligence Committee, piled on in his opening remarks.

“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,” Warner said.

Lawmakers used the incident to bring attention to their own issues with Google.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) speculated that Google didn’t attend either “because they’re arrogant” or because they didn’t want to answer hard questions about their business dealings with China, an issue he has hammered the company over.

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.) also slammed Google for ending programs with the Pentagon while keeping ties with Huawei, a Chinese telecom company that U.S. intelligence agencies have raised security concerns about.

“Perhaps Google didn’t send a senior executive today because they’ve recently taken actions such as terminating cooperation they had with the American military," Cotton said, "programs like artificial intelligence which are designed not just to protect our troops and to help them fight and win our country’s wars but to protect civilians as well."

“Perhaps they didn’t send a witness to answer these questions because there is no answer to these questions,” he added.

Tech experts said Google can expect more trouble ahead and worry the company missed an important chance to publicly defend their practices.

“Google is going to see long-term pain because of this,” said Christian Hertenstein, vice president of the right-leaning political strategy group Definers.

Hertenstein highlighted GOP concerns over China.

“Google avoiding the committee is only going to raise suspicion on how they operate in China,” he added.

The hearing largely crystallized in a public setting the building frustration on Capitol Hill and in the Trump administration with one of Silicon Valley's titans.

Google and other tech and social media companies are already taking heat from Trump over claims of political bias.

Despite the denials, Republicans see a potent political issue and one that resonates with their base. Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsSessions: DOJ concerned about suppression of free speech on college campuses Faith communities are mobilizing against Trump’s family separation policy Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe lands book deal MORE last week said he would convene a meeting with state officials to discuss those concerns.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh confirmation in sudden turmoil GOP: The economy will shield us from blue wave Jordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker MORE (R-Calif.), who is seen as a potential Speaker if Republicans retain the House, has also been a prominent critic of what he sees as efforts to silence conservative voices online.

Google could also face a serious challenge on the regulatory front.

Trump said Google and other companies may have a “very antitrust situation,” but stopped short of saying whether he thought they should be broken up.

Following those remarks, Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchGrand Staircase-Escalante: A conservation triumph is headed for future as playground for industry McConnell tamps down any talk of Kavanaugh withdrawal GOP offers to ban cameras from testimony of Kavanaugh accuser MORE (R-Utah) called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Google over its market dominance.

The agency has not responded to Hatch's calls. But the FTC is launching a new round of hearings this month on competition and consumer protections, which could touch on a host of concerns involving Google and other tech companies from their handling of customer data to market share.

The domestic scrutiny also comes at a difficult time for Google, which is already facing a regulatory assault in Europe. Earlier this year, the company was fined a record $5 billion by the European Union for antitrust violations involving its Android system.

To many tech watchers, Google's business ties with China could pose a particular problem. They see an issue that can unite lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Democrats have also raised national security concerns about Chinese companies, including ZTE and Huawei.

It is unclear though what steps lawmakers will take next.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenHouse GOP blocks Trump-supported drug pricing provision from spending bill GOP turns its fire on Google Hillicon Valley: Twitter chief faces GOP anger over bias | DOJ convenes meeting on bias claims | Rubio clashes with Alex Jones | DHS chief urges lawmakers to pass cyber bill | Sanders bill takes aim at Amazon MORE (R-Ore.) before Wednesday's hearings told The Washington Post he did not want an "adversarial" relationship with Google, but floated the possibility of a subpoena if the company did not willingly come and testify.

One tech sector lobbying source suggested Google could be vulnerable through reforms to Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act.

The provision was established to keep internet companies from being liable for what users post on their sites, however, some lawmakers have begun to talk about making changes to it. Their ranks include Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSome employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report 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 Hillicon Valley: Trump signs off on sanctions for election meddlers | Russian hacker pleads guilty over botnet | Reddit bans QAnon forum | FCC delays review of T-Mobile, Sprint merger | EU approves controversial copyright law MORE (D-Ore.), who helped draft the law and has long defended it.

“I just want to be clear, as the author of Section 230, the days when these [platforms] are considered neutral are over," Wyden said during a hearing in August.

Republicans have also questioned the merits of those protections.

“CDA 230 [reform] may actually happen. People are zoning in on that,” the source, who said they were not authorized to speak on the matter, told The Hill.

But that would be a nuclear option, and would shake up the business model not just for Google but for all web companies.

For now, Trump's public criticisms and GOP calls for regulators to step up make it clear that Google is navigating a tougher political landscape.

Some drew contrasts between how Google handled Wednesday's hearing with Facebook and Twitter. Those companies scored points with lawmakers, who praised them for attending.

During a second hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where Twitter's Dorsey testified alone on allegations of conservative bias, Walden offered praise for his outreach efforts.

“I do want to take a moment to recognize that you have worked in recent weeks to reach out to conservative audiences and discuss publicly the issues your company is facing,” Walden said.

Hertenstein said Google missed an opportunity.

“The only thing that mattered was the picture of Sheryl and Jack raising their arms and the Google placard in front of an empty seat next to them,” he said.