Facebook, Google and Twitter are drawing the ire of Congress this week in three separate hearings focusing on the use of the online platforms as a Russian interference campaign during the 2016 election. Lawmakers, however, are not limiting their questions to Russia. The probe is exposing growing concern over the influence and power of the tech giants and raising the issue of regulation.
The initial news that surfaced before the hearings began was an admission from Facebook that 126 million users may have been exposed to content produced by the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm believed to be linked to the Russian government. That’s nearly half the population of the United States, and a drastic departure from the 10 million user figure Facebook had put out in October.
Nitasha Tiku, a senior writer for Wired spoke to me in a video interview for Salon about the significance of the number. “If in the span of a month we’ve gone from 10 million to 126 million, obviously the full impact hasn’t even yet been calculated," Tiku said.
Facebook took a lot of heat from members of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Tuesday for waiting so long to disclose the figures. “Why has it taken Facebook 11 months to come forward and help us understand the scope of this problem, see it clearly for the problem it is and begin to work in a responsible legislative way to address it?” asked Senator Chris Coons.
The tough talk towards the Silicon Valley firms represents a transformation in their relationship with the government. "These companies were viewed as benevolent or if not benevolent, then at least benign, especially in comparison to other industries," Tiku explained. “So this new narrative that these networks could have been used to undermine democracy is just a very swift shift in perception."
It’s clear that members of Congress are now debating how to add layers of responsibility onto the tech firms given their size and influence. The Honest Ads Act has been proposed to force transparency about who purchases online ads and which audiences the ads target, much like existing rules for television and radio.
But the biggest question is whether or not these tech giants will have to redefine their roles.
SenatorJohn Kennedy of Louisiana zeroed in on Google on Tuesday by asking, “Are you a media company?" Google’s law enforcement and information security director Richard Saldago gave a predictable answer of, “We are not a newspaper. We are a platform . . . that collects information that can include news from sources such as newspapers.” Kennedy’s response was, “Isn’t that what newspapers do?”
Silicon Valley firms have up until now enjoyed a position where they are the gatekeepers of content internet users see, but carry little responsibility for the actual content. The pressure is clearly building for that to change.
Notably, the top executives of Google, Facebook and Twitter are absent from Washington this week and it’s legal counsel that’s been sent to face the wrath of lawmakers. Today they are testifying before separate House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Other issues being raised are the use of the platforms by terrorist organizations.
The truth is, this public flogging is about much more than the 2016 election and unsavory actors using the platforms to spread misinformation. As Congress and the public wise up to the fact that these companies are some of the richest in the country, with access to an incredible amount of personal data on their users, the more questions will come up that put the tech world’s business operations in the spotlight.
Whether or not any legislative activity actually results from this week of hearings is an open question, but the change in tone at least is apparent. Senator Kennedy's opening remarks at Tuesday’s hearing sum it up: “Your power sometimes scares me.”