Google snubbed a Senate hearing on internet meddling: How big a price will it pay?

By Tim Johnson

McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senators from both major parties tore into Google on Wednesday for declining to send its top executive to a hearing on foreign internet campaigns to influence U.S. voters, an omission that one Republican senator called an “outrage.”

Staff members on the Senate Intelligence Committee set up an empty chair to represent Google’s absence from the hearing and placed it next to Facebook and Twitter executives, who vowed to fight foreign agents from manipulating their social media platforms.

The criticism was so intense of Google that experts said the Mountain View, Calif., tech giant will almost certainly have to change its approach to forestall or shape potential regulation from Capitol Hill.

“It’s an unsustainable approach for Google,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, a nonprofit group that lobbies on issues related to the internet, civil liberties and government reform. “They will not reap long-term benefits from being rude or not engaging with Congress.”

Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said he was “disappointed” that the company didn’t agree to send “the right senior level executive” to the hearing, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a fellow Republican, said it was “an outrage that your counterpart at Google isn’t at the table as well.”

Criticism of Google came from across the political spectrum but was particularly harsh from Republican senators. Committee leaders had tussled with Google parent Alphabet over who it would send to testify, asking to hear from Alphabet chief executive Larry Page. The company declined to make Page available, instead offering Kent Walker, senior vice president and general counsel of Google.

“Google remains deeply concerned about attempts to undermine democratic elections,” Walker said in what the company described as prepared testimony that he didn’t deliver in person.

In a separate blog posting on Tuesday, Walker said the company takes “very seriously” its responsibility to prevent abuse of its platforms, and singled out “Russian- and Iranian-affiliated entities” as culprits.

The hearing was the latest showdown between Capitol Hill and Silicon Valley over the fallout from Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and charges of ongoing foreign meddling in the run-up to the upcoming midterm elections.

Google appeared to miscalculate legislative frustration even though it has a growing core of advocates seeking influence among legislators. Alphabet spent $11 million on lobbying through late July 2018, says OpenSecrets, a group that tallies spending on lobbying.

“Google has vastly expanded its lobbying efforts to the point where they are one of the behemoths on Capitol Hill,” said Craig Holman, a public affairs expert at Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer rights group.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s ranking member, said Google has much to answer for in regard to vulnerabilities on its platforms, such as why the company’s popular search engine “continues to have problems surfacing absurd conspiracies” and how Russian agents promoted divisive videos on the company’s YouTube platform.

“Given its size and influence, I would have thought the leadership at Google would have wanted to demonstrate how seriously it takes these challenges and to actually take a leadership role in this discussion,” Warner said.

Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, cast the tech giant as more loyal to its global business interests than to its homeland. He said that Google recently terminated a program with the Pentagon on artificial intelligence while cooperating with companies in China on similar plans in a move that would “privilege a hostile foreign power over the United States.”

“Credible reports suggest that they are working to develop a new search engine that would satisfy the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship standards,” Cotton said.

Google, which operates the world’s most popular web browser and search engine, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company generated $109 billion in revenue last year, mostly from advertising through its search engine and its AdSense program that places ads on millions of web sites.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey said their companies scramble to take down fake accounts and combat disinformation.

“We’re identifying and challenging eight to 10 million suspicious accounts every week. And we’re thwarting over a half million accounts from logging in to Twitter every day,” Dorsey said, adding that, “Our interests are aligned with the American people and this committee.”

Sandberg said social media companies are engaged in “an arms race” with those who want to promote disinformation.

“We are more determined than our opponents, and we will fight them,” she said.

One outside expert, Jennifer Stromer-Galley, director of the Center for Computational and Data Sciences at Syracuse University, said such hearings have been as much soapboxes for politicians as a genuine effort “to try and understand the current challenges in national security with regard to digital media.”

It is little surprise that top leaders of some companies like Google don’t want to become “punching bags” for members of Congress, she said.

“But the tech firms know they have a problem in this area and they are trying to devise solutions that keep them ahead of the regulators,” Stromer-Galley said.

Google has also come under fire from President Donald Trump, who last week claimed that the company rigs search results that lead to negative coverage of his government.

“For Google, there may be value in trying to stay out of the news cycle for the ridiculous stuff Trump has been saying about this alleged manipulation of (search) results,” Schuman said.

In its statement, Google said it had “continued to investigate activity by the Internet Research Agency and other Russia-affiliated entities” and has deleted their accounts.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team indicted 13 Russians and the Internet Research Agency on Feb. 16, charging them with operating a troll factory closely linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin that aimed to sow discord among U.S. voters and influence the outcome of the 2016 election in favor of Trump.

Google said it had taken aggressive steps to improve cybersecurity protections for U.S. candidates, campaigns, and election infrastructure, including offering warnings of state-sponsored attacks. It said it is verifying “any federal election ads on Google in the U.S., as well as creating in-ad disclosures and a searchable ad election library.”