The empty chair said a lot, and asked even more . . .
The Senate Intelligence Committee asked Google to send one of its top leaders to Washington, joining Twitter and Facebook, to discuss the use of social media by foreign actors to manipulate U.S. elections. Google offered only to send its lawyer. The committee angrily refused, and left an empty chair at the witness table to mark Google’s absence.
Several senators slammed Google during the hearing. “I’m deeply disappointed that Google, one of the most influential platforms in the world, chose not to send its own top corporate leadership to engage this committee,” said the committee’s ranking Democrat Mark Warner (D-VA). “Because I know a number of our committee members have questions about a number of structural vulnerabilities on Google’s platforms that they need answers to.”
Google released this statement in its defense Wednesday:
“Over the last 18 months we’ve met with dozens of Committee Members and briefed major Congressional Committees numerous times on our work to prevent foreign interference in US elections. Our SVP of Global Affairs and Chief Legal Officer, who reports directly to our CEO and is responsible for our work in this area, will be in Washington, D.C. today, where he will deliver written testimony, brief Members of Congress on our work, and answer any questions they have. We had informed the Senate Intelligence Committee of this in late July and had understood that he would be an appropriate witness for this hearing.”
- Google may have felt it had little to gain from appearing, and little to lose by staying away. In general, consumers aren’t really paying attention to this issue.
- Google doesn’t have a “star” who does well in public appearances. Twitter’s public face is Jack Dorsey. Facebook’s is Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg. Apple’s is Tim Cook. Is Larry Page or Sundar Pichai the “face” of Google? Not so much.
- Larry Page doesn’t know the in-the-weeds issues of platform vulnerabilities and foreign manipulation that were discussed at the hearing. To train him on the issues, and coach him on talking about them with Congress, would have been a big time commitment that may not have paid off in the end.
- Google CEO’s Sundar Pichai’s name “looks foreign” to conservative lawmakers and is hard to pronounce, one expert source said. Google may have seen that as a potential problem in the hearing.
- Had Google appeared, it’s very likely that senators would have asked about Donald Trump’s claim that the company is suppressing positive stories about him from conservative news outlets.
- Corporate hubris? “There’s an empty chair next to you where Google was supposed to sit,” said Marco Rubio (R-FL). “Maybe it’s because they’re arrogant . . .”
- Had Google appeared, it’s very likely that senators would have asked about reports that a watchdog group posing as Russian trolls was able to buy political ads from Google with no problem. Rubio, continuing: “. . . and maybe it’s because there’s this story posted at 3:36 yesterday–this group went on, they pretended to be Kremlin-linked trolls. They used the details of the Internet Research Agency, which is a Kremlin-linked troll farm, were able to buy ads online [on Google] and place them at CNN, CBS This Morning, Huff Post, Daily Beast, so I’m sure they don’t want to be here to answer these questions . . .”
- Google is anti-American? “Perhaps Google didn’t send a senior executive today because they have recently taken actions such as terminating cooperation they had with the American military on programs like artificial intelligence,” said Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
- Google is sleeping with the enemy. Cotton, continuing: “This at the very same time they continue to cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party on matters like artificial intelligence or partner with Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies that are effectively arms of the Chinese Communist Party.”
- Google wants to play ball with the Communists, Cotton believes, and doesn’t want to talk about it. “And, credible reports suggest, they are working to develop a new search engine that would satisfy the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship standards after having disclaimed any intent to do so eight years ago,” Cotton said. “Perhaps they didn’t send a witness to answer these questions because there is no answer to those questions.”
Here was Google's conundrum: It had to decide a) send Page/Pichai and field questions about China and other uncomfy issues or b) accept the open chair treatment and bipartisan disgust/attacks about China and uncomfy issues they then could not rebut.
— Tony Romm (@TonyRomm) September 5, 2018
In reality, the truth is probably some combination of the above reasons.
Had Google been represented at the witness table, the hearing this morning would have been more contentious and interesting. It would have produced better clips for the TV affiliates in the senators’ home districts. But it’s not clear that it would have brought the government and the tech industry any closer on how to make sure social media is never again used to hijack a U.S. election.