Alphabet’s decision to decline to send its CEO Larry Page to today’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing — to answer questions about what social media platforms are doing to thwart foreign influence operations intended to sow political division in the U.S. — has earned it a stinging rebuke from the committee’s vice chair, Sen. Mark Warner.
“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,” said Warner in his opening remarks, after praising Facebook and Twitter for agreeing to send their COO and CEO respectively.
Alphabet offered its SVP of global affairs and chief legal officer, Kent Walker, to testify in front of lawmakers but declined to send CEO Page or Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
Committee chairman, Richard Burr, was slightly less stinging in his opening remarks but also professed himself “disappointed that Google decided against sending the right senior level executive”.
“If the answer is regulation let’s have an honest dialogue about what that looks like. If the key is more resources or legislation that facilitates information sharing and government co-operation let’s get it out there,” he concluded. “If it’s national security policies that punish the kind of information and influence operations that we’re talking about this morning to the point that they aren’t even considered in foreign capitals then let’s acknowledge that. But whatever the answer is we’ve got to do this collaboratively and we’ve got to do this now. That’s our responsibility to the American people.”
Warner said committee members have “difficult questions about structural vulnerabilities on a number of Google’s platforms that we will need answered“, calling out a number of Google products by name and identifying abuse associated with those services.
“From Google Search, which continues to have problems surfacing absurd conspiracies….To YouTube, where Russian-backed disinformation agents promoted hundreds of divisive videos….To Gmail, where state-sponsored operatives attempt countless hacking attempts, 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.”
We’ve reached out to Google for a response.
Warner concluded his opening remarks with some policy suggestions for regulating social media platforms, saying he wanted to get the companies’ constructive thoughts on issues such as whether platforms should identify bots to their users; whether there’s a public interest in ensuring more anonymized data is available to researchers and academics to help identify potential problems and misuse; why terms of service are “so difficult to find and nearly impossible to read; why US lawmakers shouldn’t adopt ideas such as data portability, data minimization, or first party consent — which are already baked into EU privacy law — and what further accountability there should be related to platforms’ “flawed advertising model”.
Update: A Google spokesperson sent us its earlier statement — in which it writes:
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. on September 5, 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.