Google, Twitter, and Facebook have been under the spotlight these past couples of days testifying about the implications of fake news, Russia meddling and the impact on the most recent election and how the companies plan to prevent future abuse.
Senator Lindsey Graham opened the hearing by claiming internet terrorism was “the national security challenge of the 21st Century.” This being said only a day after Facebook and Twitter admitted Russian dis-info campaigns were much bigger than originally reported. Up to 126 million Facebook users seen their content and 1.4 million tweets were sent out by Russian bots. For the first time in history, these big tech players are defending the minimally regulated playground they’ve cultivated while clarifying their defenses and vulnerabilities.
Senator John Kennedy was in no mood to beat around the bush saying, “I’m trying to get us down from La La land here.” He challenged FB’s general counsel Colin Stretch begging the question, “You have 5 million advertisers that change every year, every month, probably every second…You do not have the ability to know about every one of those advertisers, do you?” Stretch attempted to recognize this flaw but Kennedy interjected asking the counsel man, “Do you have a profile on me?” with Graham’s interests, hobbies and other personal information. Stretch immediately denied this saying their systems were designed to prevent this invasion of privacy.
Senator Al Franken also aimed at Stretch exclaiming, “How did Facebook … not make the connection that ads paid for by rubbles were paid for by Russians. Those are two data points. How could you not connect those two dots?” Stretch also had to take this blow replying, “In hindsight we should have had a broader lens. There were signals we missed.” After Franken asked him whether Facebook would deny American political ads in foreign currencies, Stretch said that isn’t the focus because it’s simple to change the designated currency.
Senator Kennedy questioned Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, Richard Salgaldo, by clarifying whether or not the platform was a newspaper or something else. Although millions of users visit Google for news, they do not have the same responsibilities as traditional media and journalistic outlets. Salgado told Kennedy that they “are not a newspaper. We are a platform that shares information. This is a platform from which news can be read from many sources.” Salgado later defended his case saying that, “Google and YouTube are committed to doing our part, but as we all recognize across government, civil society, and the private sector, we will only make progress by working together to address these complex issues at their root.”
When it was time for Twitter’s representative, Sean Edgett, to speak he agreed with Stretch’s evaluation of keeping up with a large number of advertising campaigns. He told the panel that Twitter initially thought these ads were “isolated incidents, rather than manifestations of a larger, coordinated effort at misinformation on our platform.” He added that “Once we understood the systemic 6 nature of the problem in the aftermath of the election, we launched a dedicated initiative to research and combat that new threat.” He sided with Stretch’s outspoken dedication to preserve democracy claiming, “The abuse of our platform to attempt state-sponsored manipulation of elections is a new challenge for us and one that we are determined to meet.”
Interestingly, when Senator Amy Klobuchar asked if the tech companies would support the “Honest Ads Act,” which requires ad administrators who meet certain criteria to create a public database of background information; none of them said yes. Although Senator Charles Grassley agreed with Strech’s and Edgett’s opinion that Russia was merely attempting to cause social discord and division, Senator Lindsey Graham wasn’t sympathetic. The South Carolina Representative told the companies, “It’s Russia today; it could be Iran and North Korea tomorrow. We need to…find ways to bring some of the controls we have on over-the-air broadcast to social media to protect the consumer.”
Senator Richard Burr, along with the entire panel, over viewed examples of the Russian-backed propaganda. Burr attempted to convince Stretch that two of their ads instigated past violence at an Islamic Center in Houston. Although nearly impossible to pinpoint the impact of ads on the event, Senator Mark Warner asked Stretch if, “any of your companies have identified the full scope of Russian active measures?” To which he replied, “I have to say no.” Google and Twitter agreed as well revealing that these tech giants may have dragged their feet into discovering the full threat their up against. Warner retorted saying, “Many of us on this committee have been raising these issues since the beginning of this year. Our claims were frankly blown off by the leadership of your companies.”
Senator Marco Rubio asked if whether foreign campaigns in American politics violates their terms and conditions. Edgett replied no stating, “We don’t have state-sponsored manipulation of elections as one of our rules. The other rules like inflammatory ads content would take down most of these posts, but we don’t outright ban it.” This was an interesting discovery given that Federal law ban foreign nationals from interfering in U.S. elections. However, Edgett reminded the panel that they deleted another 36,746 Russian bot accounts because of its negative implications on the server. Still, this didn’t quite explain or justify why the company isn’t enforcing the law that restricts foreign influence on U.S. elections.
Senator Dianne Feinstein asked Google’s Kent Walker why Youtube still allows RT, the Russian propaganda outlet, to post videos on Youtube. However, Walker swiftly came back by stating this is outside of their jurisdiction and reminded that RT is available on cable and satellite providers. Walker assured that after reviewing the company’s content, there were no direct violations of Youtube’s guidelines. Feinstein was not impressed saying that, “You’ve created these platforms, and now, they’re being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it. Or we will.”
Senator Joe Manchin urged the companies to support the Honest Ads Act and all three claimed they would collaborate with legislators for effective solutions. Feinstein said they better figure this out quickly reminding them all they “are not going to go away gentlemen.” Senator Angus King added that in the future they “would appreciate seeing the top people who are making the decision(s)” rather than subordinate officials.
Well, these past two days have not been the most wholesome for three of the biggest tech companies today. Despite all of them defending their responses to security threats and that the breaches had little to no influence on the 2016 election, this battle is far from over. The consequences of these trials could result in heightened government regulations on the internet and social networks. Yikes! Hopefully, all involved parties will come together to not compromise the user experience while still securing the country’s national security.
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