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Facebook, Google, Twitter get very rude awakening during Senate grilling

Senator Kamala Harris ... just one of the lawmakers giving tech execs a hard time

Analysis It's something that everyone in public policy learns sooner or later: governments may be slow and cumbersome, they may be rife with hypocrisy and lacking in understanding, but they are still the government. And your money-making business is not.

Yesterday, top lawyers at Facebook, Twitter and Google went through a bit of a grilling from the US Senate Judiciary Committee, but emerged relatively intact. This morning, at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, they were given a mauling.

The real power behind the mask

Most large companies, especially tech companies, retrospectively view the day their executives are pulled into a meeting with intelligence agency overlords as a sign they have made it.

When your service or product has enough users that the NSA and FBI decide it's time to pay you a visit, you are already a success. Tech execs rarely, if ever, talk about the subsequent policy and technology changes that result from such a meeting. But everyone from Microsoft to eBay has been there. Google had the meeting years ago.

What makes Twitter in particular a notable exception is that in the post-Snowden world, it feels it is in a position to turn down Uncle Sam's snoops, and adopt a no-special-favors approach.

As a result, this morning we got to see in public what normally goes on behind closed doors: pressure.

Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) used his time to talk about "Twitter's history of cooperation with our intelligence community," and launched straight into it, referencing the website's decision to cut off government spies' access to its firehose of tweets, images and video.

"At the same time we learned that Twitter was refusing to work with the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community, we also learned Twitter was pitching Russia Today and Sputnik propaganda outlets to sell advertisements for profit," Cotton stated.

"In essence, last year, when Russia was planning its covert influence campaign against the United States, Twitter was on the side of Russia as opposed to the national security interests of the United States. How can your company justify this pattern of behavior?"

Twitter's acting general counsel Sean Edgett pushed the milliblogging upstart's position that it does not allow its data to be used "for purposes of surveillance," and argued this rule is applied "consistently to all organizations."

'Media'

Cotton was already there. "Did you cut off Russia Today and Sputnik?" he asked. Edgett responded: "When we approached Russia Today, we approached it as a regular media organization like the BBC or NPR…"

"Do you consider Russia Today to be a regular media organization?" Cotton fired back. Edgett: "Obviously not now – that's why we have banned Russia Today from advertising on the platform."

Cotton then pushed on a report that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey vetoed the CIA contract for access to Twitter's data stream yet Russia Today was allowed onto the website. "Do you see equivalency between the Central Intelligence Agency and Russia's intelligence services?" asked Cotton.

He then pushed on the matter of Wikileaks, noting that the both the CIA and the Senate intelligence committee has deemed it a "non-state intelligence service that aids hostile intelligence services" yet "Twitter still allows them to operate uninhibited."

Twitter tries to be consistent and act without bias, Edgett argued. "I have to say most American citizens will expect American companies to be willing to put the interests or our country above – not on a par with – our adversaries," Cotton responded.

In closing, the senator made the same point again but with an explicit threat: "This kind of attitude I would submit is not acceptable to a large majority of Americans, and is going to be part of what will lead to unwise or imprudent regulation, not sensible and smart regulation."

Globalization

While tech goliaths view themselves as global companies thanks to their worldwide customer base, they are still entirely reliant on US laws, and the committee – which helps makes those laws - was unafraid of pointing that fact out. Repeatedly.

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) asked: "Why should you be treated any differently to the press?" All three California outfits responded with a version of the fact that they are "platforms" and not publishers, that their content is user-created, and that they protect people's right to free speech and expression. Cornyn made it clear he was not persuaded. "They may be a distinction lost on most of us," he said.

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) was firmer. "You cannot allow what's going on against the United States of America," he told Facebook, Google and Twitter. "What you're doing by allowing this misleading, this damaging information is really threatening the security and safety and really the sovereignty of our nation."

It's not often you get told by a powerful senator that your actions are damaging national sovereignty. Manchin went on: "I wish your CEOs were here. They need to answer for this. This can't be a business model; this has to be a security model."

That reflected a warning shot earlier from Senator Angus King (I-ME) who told the tech companies' lead lawyers: "I'm disappointed that you're here and not your CEOs."

Later, the First Amendment argument was thrown back in the social networks' faces. "I'm sure you'd have no problem with notifying all the people that saw this false information [during the election] and believed it to be true," posited Senator Jack Reed (D-RI). "You have an obligation under the First Amendment to notify people who you know have been deliberately misled."

Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) reiterated the same message – we are the law, you are not – when she flagged that all three corporations had asked for exemptions from federal rules on disclosing political spending. In the light of the fact that all three companies made money not just from Russian sources but from American organizations that ran ads alongside fake news planted by the Russians during the presidential election, Harris implied that maybe the US government would reconsider such exemptions.

Senator Manchin then asked the three companies whether they would support the Honest Ads Act that has been put forward in Congress to obligate companies that offer online ads to be held to the same election disclosure rules as print publications and TV and radio stations. Yesterday, Twitter, Facebook and Google were notably unenthusiastic about the idea; this morning, that position had shifted to being "very supportive" of the idea albeit with some "fine tuning."

It didn't help that first thing this morning, Facebook yet again raised the number of Americans that had seen dodgy Russian ads placed during the election: it's now 150 million. Yesterday it was 126 million. Last month it was 10 million; the month before, zero.

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