The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has summoned the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Google for a hearing Wednesday about online political mischief by foreign governments.
As was the case in a hearing several months ago, committee members will question the executives on their efforts (or lack thereof) to stop Russia and other countries from sowing discord among the American electorate via phony tweets, YouTube videos, and other posts.
Two major problems exist with the committee’s approach:
- Facebook, Twitter, and Google are private enterprises, not agents of government for Congress to kick around. Responsibility for protecting the nation from foreign threats belongs first with national security and intelligence agencies, and those elected to oversee them.
- Whether Russia’s high jinks affected the 2016 election is a matter of dispute. And while some members of Congress are concerned that the online fakery has eroded public trust, they have a responsibility to determine whether there was actual wrongdoing on the part of tech companies rather than simply engage in scapegoating.
Confusion over social media issues is rampant in Washington, D.C. In a previous hearing, for example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the general counsels of Facebook, Google, and Twitter: “You’ve created these platforms, and now they’re being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it.”
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Meanwhile, President Donald Trump took to tweeting at 5 a.m. last Tuesday about “FAKE NEWS” in Google search results, echoing the chorus of conservatives demanding action by the tech companies to ensure “fairness.”
White House officials reportedly are weighing regulatory options. But the president and other aggrieved parties should instead put their principles into action—that is, marshal their resources in support of more neutral options or finance their own.
Scheduled to testify Wednesday are Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter. Google CEO Sundar Pichai declined the committee’s invitation and offered instead to send Kent Walker, senior vice president for global affairs.
That did not sit well with committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., who evidently prefers to browbeat Pichai rather than a subordinate. Indeed, Burr was all over the news last week claiming that “Google chooses not to participate and [be] part of the solution.”
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s highest-ranking Democrat, chimed in, scolding Pichai for making a “great mistake” by not attending.
Clearly, it is time to reboot.
Officials of Facebook, Google, and Twitter all acknowledge the existence of fake accounts connected with foreign trolls and spammers, and the companies have deleted tens of thousands of phony communications while also refining methods of rooting out other violations of their terms of service.
The fake accounts and phony tweets uncovered to date do not rise to the seriousness of “cyberwarfare” such as hacking critical infrastructure (e.g., electrical grids and transportation systems); subversion of online security systems; ransomware; cybertheft of intellectual property; and exploiting the vulnerability of U.S. government networks.
Federal law prohibits foreign nationals from expending or disbursing funds to influence federal elections, and bars foreign entities from engaging in political activities in the United States without the approval of the attorney general.
Enforcing these and other laws governing foreign conduct is not the responsibility of Google, Facebook, or any other private online platform. Their cooperation and assistance is valuable, to be sure, but Burr, Feinstein, and the like have no business demanding that the companies act as an arm of federal law enforcement.
The same goes for the president’s attacks on Google and the complaints of conservative censorship. Anecdotes abound about biased algorithms, but these private enterprises are not obligated to abide any sort of partisan fairness doctrine—not that such a thing is enforceable in any systematic way.
Instead, some conservatives appear to be abandoning fundamental free market principles in demanding either corporate or government action to remedy their grievances. To the extent Google, Facebook, or others censor conservatives, the more effective response would be to abandon the offending platforms and frequent more neutral competitors, or create their own.
In fact, online access is unlimited. Facebook, Google, and others do wield enormous influence, but they are not monopolies and should not be treated as such. Ill-conceived regulation would actually secure their market dominance—which is part of the reason Silicon Valley titans attempt to placate regulatory zealots rather than resist government interference.
It would be folly for Congress to dictate additional controls on social media content. But that is not likely to stop the hearings and investigations and impassioned floor speeches from lawmakers (some of whose knowledge of internet technology would barely fill a tweet).
If only the lawmakers were half as worked up about controlling the $21 trillion national debt as they are itching to regulate Google, Facebook, and Twitter.