- Representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter testified in Congress this week regarding alleged Russian interference in last year's election.
- The tech companies' CEOs declined to show.
The companies' lawyers failed to reassure legislators and the public that the companies are prepared to fix the problems that allowed people and groups linked to Russia to abuse their platforms.
Big Tech's big appearance in Washington this week was a big disappointment.
Congressional representatives have been investigating Russia's alleged meddling in last year's election. They called on Facebook, Google, and Twitter to testify about what happened and what the companies are doing to prevent similar propaganda efforts in the future. Mostly it was a chance for the big tech companies to show they are taking the problem seriously.
But on just about every level, Big Tech failed. The companies sent their lawyers instead of their top brass, a pretty good indication of how much of a priority they're making of this problem.
While the companies' lawyers assured the members of Congress that their companies take this issue seriously and are taking steps to make sure it never happens again, we've heard similar talk before. Facebook, Google, and Twitter have routinely shown they can't handle such challenges, and they gave little reason to think things would be different this time around.
And when pressed about what happened last year, the companies' lawyers offered a slew of excuses. Overall, they conveyed the sense that Big Tech feels it's largely blameless for what happened. And they gave little reason to hope that their companies would make many real changes to how they do business.
After two days of hearings, it was hard to feel optimistic.
Here are the most important takeaways from the hearings:
The CEOs didn't show
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey all declined to testify at the hearings. That was bad enough. But just how little importance Big Tech's leaders ascribed to the hearings can be gleaned from one Facebook post.
Here's what Zuckerberg was up to on October 31, the first day of the hearings:
By sending their lawyers (Colin Stretch for Facebook, Sean Edgett for Twitter, and Richard Salgado and Kent Walker for Google), Big Tech sent a message to Congress and the American people that it didn't think its CEOs should be held accountable for the abuse on their platforms, whether before, during, or after the election.
Yes, Congress could've subpoenaed the CEOs and forced them to testify, but it shouldn't have had to take that step. Zuckerberg, Pichai, and Dorsey should have shown up on their own and taken responsibility for what's happened and happening on their sites. Instead, Zuckerberg thought it was more important to dress up like a Wild Thing.
Fake news, personal attacks, and other abuse are still big problems on these companies' sites. The midterm elections are just a year away, and we have no assurance under oath from Big Tech's top leadership that their companies are working to make the changes needed to safeguard those elections from similar meddling in time. Instead, all we're getting are promises that they'll do better.
Facebook wouldn't commit to rejecting foreign currency as payment for US political advertising
Perhaps the most frustrating moment during the hearings was when Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota asked Facebook's Stretch if the company would stop allowing people to pay for political ads shown in the US with Russian rubles, North Korean won, or other foreign currencies.
Stretch danced around the issue quite a bit, but his answer was essentially that Facebook wouldn't commit to that. The bigger message from that exchange? Facebook values making money over making sure political ads are legitimate.
I share Franken's sentiment to Stretch's answer:
The companies refused to acknowledge they're in the media business
Ah, the tiresome media company debate again. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana asked the Big Tech companies if they were in the media business or were simply agnostic technology platforms. Surprise! Each company's lawyer declared his company an agnostic tech platform.
This despite the fact that all three companies distribute news and other media to billions of people each day, act as a primary news source for millions here in the US, and make money by selling advertising that they runs next to or place within news articles and videos.
Even if the Big Tech platforms don't want to label themselves as such, the fact is that they basically are media companies. And they ought to have the same responsibilities as other media companies to vet the content and ads they distribute.
None of the companies would commit to supporting the Honest Ads Act
Last month, senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar introduced the Honest Ads Act, which would require online political ads to contain similar disclosures about who paid for them as are found in print, broadcast, and radio ads. If the bill were enacted, you would be able to see if the election ad in your Facebook News Feed were funded by a political candidate's campaign, a political action committee — or a Russia-linked group looking to stir up trouble.
Before the hearings, Facebook, Twitter, and Google committed to putting in place new transparency rules for political advertising. But they declined to voice support for the Honest Ads Act, despite its similar goal.
It makes sense that Big Tech prefers self-regulation to government regulation, no matter how modest the latter. But that doesn't mean that allowing those companies to regulate themselves makes sense for the rest of us.
Big Tech has repeatedly failed to do even an adequate job of policing itself. Even with fake news and fake ads in the spotlight, the companies couldn't block the distribution of bogus stories in recent weeks about the mass shooting in Las Vegas or the controversy over NFL players kneeling to protest the treatment of African Americans. So, there's little reason to believe they'll successfully regulate political ads without being prompted to by the government.
Legislators were unduly obsessed with Russia Today
Members of Congress asked a lot of legitimate and important questions during the hearings. But they spent way too much time asking and talking about Russia Today (RT), a news organization funded by the Russian government.
RT distributes its news videos through cable, satellite, and the internet, via sites including Google's YouTube. In many ways, it's a traditional news source, albeit one skewed toward Russian interests. And RT is clear and transparent when it is promoting its content; you can see it is behind its videos and articles.
There are good arguments for blocking Russia-linked bots and fake accounts from spreading fake news or placing propagandistic ads. But blocking RT and suppressing its speech would set a dangerous precedent. And the tech companies were right to point out during the hearings the distinction between RT's posts and those of the Russia-linked bots.
Unfortunately, members of Congress wasted a lot of valuable time using RT as an example of Big Tech's failures.
The companies still don't know the extent of the Russia-linked propaganda effort
Legislators repeatedly pressed Facebook, Google, and Twitter's lawyers about whether their companies were confident they had uncovered, on their respective platforms, all of the Russia-linked propaganda from the 2016 election. None could say "yes" definitively.
Instead the representatives of all three companies gave the same general answers: Their companies are continuing to investigate, and there's a possibility they will discover more Russia-linked fake news and ads.
It's frightening that even now, more than a year after the election, we still don't know the extent of the Russia-linked propaganda effort. And it's disturbing that the companies are basically saying that the drip-drip-drip of revelations is likely to continue.
There's little reason for optimism
Following the hearings, there was little reason to hope that the problem of Big Tech being used to spread foreign propaganda has been or will soon be solved anytime. The companies, of course, promised they'd fix the problems on their own. However, after so many past promises and failures, there's little reason to believe they'll get things right now.
But the companies do have an extra incentive this time around. Congress is keenly focused on this issue. Big Tech now has a chance — maybe its last chance — to address these problems before, as Senator Diane Feinstein said during the hearings, Congress acts.
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