Technology

GOP turns its fire on Google

President Trump'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.

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 Burr (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 Warner (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 Cotton (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 Sessions last week said he would convene a meeting with state officials to discuss those concerns.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (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 Hatch (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 Walden (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 Wyden (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.

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