Leaders of the Senate intelligence committee on Wednesday blasted search engine giant Google for failing to participate in the leading congressional inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.
While Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey attended the Capitol Hill panel on foreign influence in social media, Google declined to send a top executive, leaving its spot at the hearing room table occupied by a glass of water and an empty chair.
The issue of anti-conservative bias among the leading social media firms also factored front and center and provided the proceedings with a circus-like quality when Alex Jones, a right-wing media personality and publisher of the Infowars website, held an impromptu press conference outside the hearing room to discuss the recent banning of his content on Twitter and YouTube.
“The real election meddling is by Facebook and Google and others that are shadow banning people,” Mr. Jones yelled to reporters, adding that he wanted to testify because of the ban.
When Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, walked past the scrum, Mr. Jones engaged him a sort of debate. Mr. Rubio claimed not to know who the Infowars publisher was. Mr. Jones then called the senator a “frat boy” and “a little punk” before Mr. Rubio walked away and told the assembled press, “you guys can talk to this clown [Mr. Jones].”
Back inside, committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, and the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia, were criticizing Google, the Silicon Valley search leader, for failing to attend. The CEO of its parent company Alphabet, was invited but the company declined to send him.
“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,” Mr. Warner said in his opening remarks.
“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,” he added. “Google has an immense responsibility in this space. Given its size and influence, I would have thought the leadership at Google would want to demonstrate how seriously it takes these challenges and to lead this important public discussion.”
Mr. Rubio added to the criticism, calling Google’s decision a matter of arrogance. He also noted that the firm has faced renewed concerns that Russian trolls have again attempted to purchase Google ads in a bid to influence debate.
Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Dorsey both defended their firms, arguing just weeks before the 2018 midterm elections they are in full battle mode against foreign actors attempting to sway public debate on their digital platforms.
Ms. Sandberg, a former chief of staff for Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, was polished in her remarks and went so far as to compliment the committee’s previous work on election interference.
Mr. Dorsey, a 44-year-old tech pioneer worth an estimated $6.3 billion for co-founding Twitter, and founding the mobile payments company, Square, frequently spoke from notes he read from his cellphone. He also told the committee he was live-tweeting his opening remarks through his Twitter account.
Over the past year congressional scrutiny and criticism of Silicon Valley’s social media behemoths have increased dramatically as evidence has mounted about the extent Kremlin-backed propaganda that flooded the space during the 2016 election cycle.
Further controversy broke out over the firms’ abuse of user privacy and data, in addition to recent and growing allegations that conservatives are being censored on social-media platforms.
Later in the day Mr. Dorsey will also testify before a House hearing.
Wednesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing was the panel’s fourth on social media. Both Mr. Burr and Mr. Warner, who is considered one of the Senate’s leading authorities on technologies, were pointed in their assessments of the social media problem.
“With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that serious mistakes were made by both Facebook and Twitter,” Mr. Warner said. “You, like the U.S. government, were caught flat-footed by the brazen attacks on our election. Even after the election, you were reluctant to admit there was a problem.”
“Technology always moves faster than regulation, and to be frank, the products and services that enable social media don’t fit neatly into the consumer safety and regulatory constructs of the past,” Mr. Burr added.
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