For years, the big tech companies have been running their wildly influential products with relatively little accountability. With few exceptions, they talk to the press only about the topics they feel like discussing and only under the most favorable of terms. Any reporter who covers these firms has a hundred good, important questions he or she wishes they could ask their executives on the record at any given time. The companies don’t allow it.
But for several hours on Tuesday afternoon, the general counsels of Facebook, Google, and Twitter sat before a Senate subcommittee and answered questions, under oath, about their companies’ role in purveying Russian-linked disinformation to American voters, both before and after the 2016 election. The hearing, held by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee, was the first of three that the companies will face this week.
It was a rare opportunity, and the senators did not waste it.
Are foreign governments still using these tech companies’ platforms to meddle in our politics? (Maybe.) How do you know? (We don’t.) Is it possible that Iran or North Korea could be doing the same things as Russia? (It is.) Do you even know who all of your advertisers are at any given time? (No.) Are you media companies or technology companies? (Technology companies.)
The questions, in many cases, were more satisfying than the answers. That’s partly because, even facing unprecedented pressure from the public and Congress, none of the three companies was willing to put its top executives in the line of fire: Each sent a lawyer instead, presumably to make sure nothing overly candid would be revealed.
All three lawyers managed to avoid any serious missteps, though their reticence made them come across as a bit clueless at times. And the absence of the companies’ public faces—people like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, or Google’s Sundar Pichai—signaled that, for all their carefully PR-managed displays of concern, they still think they’re entitled to stay out of the fray.
As a result, Tuesday’s hearing alone seems unlikely to be a turning point of any sort for these companies, although who knows exactly what lessons the committee members took from it. The most interesting disclosures were those that the companies volunteered in their prepared statements, such as Facebook’s new finding that some 126 million users read political posts disseminated by Russia’s Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency. (Earlier it had focused on the dollar amount of ads paid for by the group, which was a way of minimizing the scope of its influence.) The lawyers were determined not to let slip much else of substance under the questioning. Perhaps Wednesday’s sessions will reveal more.
Yet even in the face of the lawyers’ stonewalling, several senators managed to shine light on both the enormous power these companies have acquired and the ways in which they’ve fallen short of its attendant responsibilities.
A visibly miffed Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota put his finger on this disconnect with his first question. “How could Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in rubles were coming from Russia?” he asked. Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, was at a loss. “In hindsight, we should have had a broader lens,” he finally stammered. “There are signals we missed.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, cut through Stretch’s rhetoric about cracking down on actors using its platform to spread “vile” and divisive political messages. “How are you going to sort this out consistent with the basic values of this country when it comes to freedom of expression?” he asked. Stretch: “It’s a great question. I don’t suggest it’s easy.”
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota pressed Google as to whether it’s funneling money to the Kremlin-backed media outlet Russia Today via its YouTube revenue-sharing programs. Richard Salgado, the company’s director of law enforcement and information security, stammered that he was “not sure of the information flow.” All three companies also declined to commit to supporting the Honest Ads Act, a bill co-authored by Klobuchar that would require greater transparency and disclosure in online ads.
Some of the most penetrating questions came from one of the least-known senators, Republican John Kennedy of Louisiana. Speaking slowly and in plain language, Kennedy opened with a line that encapsulated how a lot of Americans feel about Silicon Valley these days. “I think you do enormous good,” he said—“but your power sometimes scares me.” He proceeded to press Facebook on whether the sheer scale of its automated ad platform makes it impossible for the company to fully control. “You’ve got 5 million advertisers, and you’re trying to tell me you’re going to be able to trace the origin of all of those advertisers?” he asked. Stretch conceded the company can’t know for sure who all of them are.
Kennedy also interrogated Stretch as to how much Facebook knows about individual users, highlighting an internal document that leaked in May that showed the company promoting its ability to target teens with ads at times when they’re feeling emotionally vulnerable. Stretch pointed repeatedly to Facebook’s internal policies, which he said have been updated to prevent such applications of its ad tools, but Kennedy wasn’t having it. He said he was concerned about what Facebook has the capacity to do, even if its policies officially prohibit it. (He’s right to be concerned about that.)
One senator who seemed to miss the point was Ted Cruz of Texas. He spent most of his time accusing the platforms of political bias, dredging up old studies that showed Google searches surfaced more positive results, on average, for Democratic politicians than their Republican counterparts. And he reminded everyone of the mostly bogus 2016 controversy in which some Facebook contractors admitted that they trusted outlets such as the New York Times more than conservative outlets when it came to choosing sources for the site’s “Trending” news section.
That tempest prompted Facebook to pull back from human oversight of the section and delegate more power to shoddy algorithms—a retrenchment that may have played a role in allowing fake news and Russian propaganda to flourish. Yet here was Cruz, treating the hearing as another chance to rail about media bias and accuse tech companies of injecting their own politics into their products.
The senators may not have gotten the answers they wanted Tuesday. But at least they raised the stakes that these companies face when they try to sidestep or downplay tough questions about their responsibilities. They do it habitually with the media and pay a relatively small price in the form of tech coverage that often carries a cynical undercurrent. Stonewall members of Congress enough, however, and they’re risking the ire of a group of people who actually have the power to do something about it.