Big Tech and the U.S. Government
Last week, comments from a U.S. Senate Intelligence committee hearing included:
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg: “Facebook takes the issue of election interference [seriously] … We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act. … The threat we face is not new. America has always confronted attacks from opponents who wish to undermine our democracy. What is new are the tactics they use. That means it’s going to take everyone—including industry, governments, and experts from civil society—working together to stay ahead … This is an arms race, and that means we need to be ever more vigilant."
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey: ”Twitter’s purpose is to serve the public conversation ... Twitter is used as a global town square, where people from around the world come together in an open and free exchange of ideas. …I hope my testimony before the Committee will demonstrate the challenges that we are tackling as a global platform. Twitter is approaching these challenges with a simple question: How do we earn more trust from the people using our service?”
When Google failed to send appropriate representation to the senate hearing, comments included:
Committee chair Sen. Richard Burr: “I’m disappointed Google decided against sending the right senior level executive”
Vice chair Mark Warner: “I’m deeply disappointed that Google, one of the most influential digital platforms in the world, chose not to send its own top corporate leadership to engage this committee.”
Senator Tom Cotton: “credible reports suggest that they [Google] are working to develop a new search engine that would satisfy the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship standards after having disclaimed any intent to do so eight years ago. Perhaps they did not send a witness to answer these questions because there is no answer to these questions. And the silence we would hear right now from the Google chair would be reminiscent of the silence that that witness would provide.”
In a separate action, U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) spokesman Devin O'Malley said, "The Attorney General has convened a meetingwith a number of state attorneys general this month to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms."
In response, Computer and Communications Industry Association spokeswoman Heather Greenfield said, “It is worrisome when a government agency mentions antitrust and censorship together as it raises a question of whether DOJ might use an investigation to try to pressure social media companies to alter how they handle legal free speech in the various online public squares.”
Regarding big tech and the U.S. Congress - It is likely that congressional hearings will continue, the issues are complex and changes from Congress would be slow and incremental.
Regarding the US Attorney General, competition and free speech: If addressing competition at the state level is the focus, a good place to start may be the 1998 Internet Tax Freedom Act (amended with the 2015 Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act) which, studies suggest, costs states up to $7 billion in annual revenue. Regarding free-speech - while the platforms may have biases, it is unclear if the First Amendment applies.
Regarding Google and others: These firms are global players and will assess the impact of negative PR, sanctions, etc. relative to the potential impact to their revenue model and their stock price.