Big Tech will be in the hot seat at two major congressional hearings today.
Hearing 1: The Senate Intelligence committee will talk to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg about how they propose to stop foreign entities like Russia from using their social platforms to influence U.S. elections, especially this November’s 2018 midterm elections. Top Google executives were also invited to testify, but the company offered its attorney, which the committee promptly refused. The committee’s ranking Democrat Mark Warner said an empty chair would be left out to mark the absence of a Google C-level executive.
Hearing 2: Later in the day, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will talk to Dorsey about recent allegations that Twitter, Facebook, and Google have shown a bias against conservatives in the way they present news and other content.
One D.C. source told me the afternoon hearing will be dominated by questions about Donald Trump’s claim last week that Google News surfaces mainly negative stories from liberal media about him, while down-ranking stories from conservative news sources. Past experience and other reports suggest that members of Congress will raise issues outside the topics in question. They may ask about anything from privacy to antitrust to the willingness of tech companies to engage with China.
Washington, for better or worse, has warmed up to the idea of trying its hand at regulating tech, perhaps following in Europe’s footsteps. To tamp down that enthusiasm, the tech companies have some explaining to do. Dodges and smooth answers won’t cut it. These are some of the top questions Big Tech needs to answer.
Sandberg: Facebook has grown bigger than its founders ever thought possible. You’ve been so busy making money on advertising you’ve allowed foreign interests to use Facebook to mess up our elections. How are you going to convince us that you can balance your fiscal obligations with your civic duty to facilitate and preserve, or at the very least, do no harm to our democracy?
Sandberg: A New York Times article Tuesday said that Alex Jones and other purveyors of inflammatory speech have begun hiding in private groups on Facebook, where they can “speak more openly with less fear of being punished for incendiary posts.” You’ve been promoting the idea of groups, but how can you police secret groups to make sure your platforms aren’t being abused? Are you intending to transfer content moderation accountability to group moderators instead of investing more in content moderation? (This question was contributed by Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor at Syracuse University’s S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.)
Sandberg: Mark Zuckerberg talked to Congress in April and had difficulty explaining who Facebook’s competitors are. Would you like to have a go at it? (While it would be difficult for government to regulate social platforms based on their presentation of content, platforms like Google and Facebook are more vulnerable to charges of antitrust, and efforts by the government to break them up.)
Sandberg and Dorsey: We read media reports that Facebook and Twitter invited other major tech companies to a meeting in San Francisco in late August to discuss ways of preventing foreign meddling in U.S. elections. Would you please now describe what was discussed in the meeting, and tell us how big tech companies are planning to improve their cooperation on this problem? Might these companies create an organization that self-regulates the social media industry?
Sandberg: We’ve heard much from you over the past year about what you’re doing to stop election tampering. But Facebook’s ex-CTO Alex Stamos has stated that it’s already too late–that the midterms have already been compromised. How can you assure us that your efforts will prove effective with the midterms approaching?
Sandberg and Dorsey: Why should we take your word for it when you say your algorithms aren’t biased? Do you have independent internal reviews to make sure that your algorithms are not biased, and that employees are not manipulating algorithms without management’s knowledge? (This question was also contributed by Syracuse’s Grygiel.)
Sandberg: Your stated policy on fake news seems to allow for false or debunked news pieces to remain in circulation on Facebook. Instead of just down-ranking those fake news items, why don’t you take responsibility for them and the harm they can do, and remove them outright? Why will you not assume the role of a responsible moderator?
Dorsey: After all the other major tech platforms ejected Alex Jones and InfoWars from their platforms, why has Twitter decided to keep Jones’s accounts active, even as they have featured content that obviously runs counter to your company’s own conduct rules?
Sandberg and Dorsey: Your companies have been accused several times of suppressing conservative voices, including by, on Twitter, shadow-banning users–especially outspoken conservatives–so that the content they create appears to other users far less or not at all. You have also said you don’t judge accounts based on the political content. But how can we be sure that certain accounts aren’t being suppressed? Could we submit your content-ranking algorithms to third-party oversight, in order to ensure their neutrality?
Sandberg and Dorsey: Are you prepared to support a federal privacy law modeled on the strict new California law, and why or why not? That law, set to go into effect in 2020, gives consumers a right to know what personal data you’re collecting from them, why you’re collecting it, and with whom you’re sharing it. (As the New York Times reported, the big tech companies are in favor of a federal privacy law, as long as it overrides the California law, and as long as they get to define the language and perhaps even establish a way to effectively regulate themselves.)
Sandberg and Dorsey will certainly get a grilling Wednesday, and you’ll likely hear versions of some of the questions above. In the wake of a string of tech industry hearings last year and this year, Sandberg and Dorsey have some convincing to do. It won’t be enough to play it cool and defensive, and don’t expect them to be tripped up by too many questions. The key to their success may be the extent to which the two are forthcoming and transparent.